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Questioning to Learn

This article appeared in the February 4, 2011 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

Questioning to Learn

Carmen DeLeon, an education specialist at Explorit Science Center, asks 9-year-old Jordan McClain about his group's 'marble drop challenge' during during an Inquiry Lab earlier this week.

By Liz Shenaut
Special to the Enterprise

Informal science educators at organizations like Explorit Science Center ask learners a lot of questions because conversation during learning is what makes concepts click.

Good educators first make learners wonder and suppose, then probe learners for explanations. Learners who are actively engaged and social are tapping into a natural human strength to process information through conversation.

Lynn Tran, a Research Specialist with Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, studies how people learn and how teachers should teach. She says in successful science teaching, it is best to get learners talking instead of the teachers doing all the talking.

“Questions are important because they serve as an opportunity to participate in talking, which is very important to learning,” Tran said. “Talking through your understanding as you are figuring it out is critical for concept formation.”

Tran is working with Explorit’s education staff on a professional development program designed for reflecting upon and improving their teaching practice. She shared research on how people learn to help educators adopt better teaching techniques.

Since inquiry -- investigation in the pursuit of knowledge -- is at the core of doing science, it makes sense that it should be at the core of teaching science. Open-ended questions push learners to dive into inquiry for themselves, and more specific questions require them to refine and explain their knowledge.

Although questions can be very helpful in getting learners to take charge of their inquiry process, Tran cautions educators that not all questions are equally valuable.

“Think about what you’re trying to achieve and know where you’re going,” Tran said. “The questions have to be purposeful and meaningful.”

In other words, good teachers ask good questions. They ask the kind of questions that challenge learners to reflect on their prior experiences and knowledge in order to come up with an answer.

Tran gives an example of an effective questioning process that an education staff member might lead at her science center’s touch tank that contains sea anemones.

“ ‘How do you think an anemone eats?’ you might ask,” said Tran.  “Then you have to follow it up with, ‘Why do you think that?’ ”

These types of learning conversations are central to the teaching philosophy at Explorit Science Center because they work. The art of asking good questions is a skill Explorit educators are constantly honing.

Using good questions to get your point across does not have to be limited to children and science education. People learn all the time, so learning conversations happen all the time.

The next time someone doesn’t get what you are telling him or her, try restating your point in the form of a question. Start a back-and-forth discussion. Chances are, that someone will  ‘get it’ pretty easily.

Explorit Science Center’s 3141 5th St. site is the location for programs for groups, astronomy club meetings, Birthday Parties, and Summer Science Camp.  It is also the hub for Explorit’s traveling programs that reach an 18-county region.  The site is open to the public for special events and to groups by reservation. For more information call (530) 756-0191 or visit

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