Focusing On The Questions

How do we prepare students for a world where the answers aren't always waiting for them in the back of the book?

In an age of standardized tests and even tests that prepare you for standardized tests, answers, especially that one, single, right one, seem to take on an inflated importance in our classrooms. Those right answers and those tests certainly have a place in our children's education. But where do questions go?


And I'm talking about real questions, the kind that don't always have straightforward answers.

Consider Edward Jenner. When he noticed milkmaids had a lower incidence of falling ill to smallpox, what book did he flip to the back of in order to find the explanation for why this was so?

When Watson and Crick's model for DNA didn't seem to be working out quite well, which teacher could they bring their data to ask, "Is this what I'm supposed to be getting?"

No one knew the answers to Jenner's and Watson's and Crick's questions. What's more, no one was there to even tell them they were on the right track. Instead, these scientists had to use what they already knew about the world to come up with the answers. They developed experiments, tested their ideas, and had to defend their results.

Facing a question that only leads to more questions can be intellectually intimidating for 5 year olds and 55 year olds alike. Scientific thinking can feel a bit uncomfortable at times, because it runs counter to what we usually think of as academic success. Yet it is the ability to find those questions and patiently drill down into those answers that has moved the Earth out of the center of the universe, lit our homes and offices, and kept small infections from becoming death sentences.

When too much of our science education focuses on memorizing the cut-and-dried-find-them-in-the-back-of-the-book answers, we forget the questions and uncertainty that our real, everyday science is built on. We hear that Vitamin D is shown to cut cancer risks in some women, sun exposure helps us synthesize Vitamin D, but sun exposure also increases cancer risks. In that same vein, are eggs bad for us because of the cholesterol, or good for us because of the protein?

Sure it's cliché to say that perhaps the scientist who will cure cancer is sitting in your classroom right now, but let us entertain that possibility for a moment. If she is sitting there, is she the student who is best at memorizing facts? In her quest for a cure, do we think she'll make mistakes along the way? What are we doing to show her those mistakes are OK? Is she learning how to learn from those mistakes, or does she learn that mistakes are to be erased and forgotten?

Learning science through inquiry is a powerful way for children to use those question-neurons, those "mistakes are OK" brain pathways that are under- stimulated in too many classrooms.

Despite these challenges, there are teachers everywhere, everyday, leading the next generation of innovators. If you are one or know one, drop us a line and let us know what you are doing. We'd love to feature your work.

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About the Author

Marjee Chmiel, PhD

Marjee is the Director of Evaluation and Editorial Development at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Marjee previous worked at the Smithsonian Science Education Center as the Division Director of Curriculum and Communications. Marjee has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a master's degree in curriculum design, both from Marquette University. Her PhD is from George Mason University in Educational Research and Evaluation Methods.