Professional Development

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Question Everything!

i. Why is it important to teach STEM with hands-on activities?
ii. Why do you think that?
iii. What personal examples do you have of successfully teaching a hands-on activity?

Above are examples of high-level, open-ended questions.

These types of questions are an essential part of encouraging young people to think creatively and critically. I provided tips and strategies to help you develop your skills using these types of questions in an earlier article, titled "5 Tips for Cultivating Creativity and Curiosity."

Good questions are important to educators, but they are just as important for young people.

We all begin life as natural questioners. Spend any time around preschool children and you will quickly be overwhelmed with questions from their curious minds.

Now, imagine a fourth-grade environment. Is it the same? Where did that wide-eyed wonder go?

Unfortunately, our open curiosity tends to be replaced by a sense of caution to not question adults, to not call attention to oneself, to not look silly and uninformed. Asking questions is something we generally become more reserved with as we age. In traditional education, information tends to only flow one way. Information that is deemed important gets distilled into curriculum and then passed from teacher to student, with little time for questioning or investigation. Under the frantic pace of formal education, young people can quickly discover that asking questions is not always welcome.

It can be hard for young people to form connections to their existing knowledge and make the information more personally meaningful if they are not able to ask questions. To be creative and critical thinkers, young people need to feel comfortable not knowing things and asking questions. Learning how to find answers and to ask good questions is key to developing curious lifelong learners.

Afterschool STEM activities provide the perfect opportunity to upset the norm and let the questions fly. With just a few simple ideas you can help develop young people's questioning skills.

Be a Role Model

From the preschool years through college, young people take both spoken and unspoken cues from their teachers. As a role model, aim to cultivate an atmosphere that is a safe space for asking questions and where questioning is viewed as an important process.

Remember that asking a question can be quite scary. It telegraphs to the world that you do not know or understand something. Seek out and celebrate questioning in your activities and demonstrate that it is welcomed and desired. Do not be afraid of not knowing the answers yourself. It provides great opportunities for young people to learn alongside you. Encourage young people to ask each other questions. Use your actions to show that there are no bad questions, just opportunities for great answers and more thought.

Flex the Question Muscle

Provide plenty of fun opportunities to engage in asking and answering questions.

  • Build in time for reflection and asking questions as part of every activity, whether it be story time or STEM time.
  • Encourage your group to formulate 10 questions they want to discover the answers to before you begin a new topic or discussion.
  • Create a Wall of Inquiry. Place a piece of poster board or a sheet of chart paper on a wall and provide a supply of sticky notes. Have young people write a question on a sticky note anytime they think of one and post it on the chart. Encourage young people to post questions during activities when time does not allow for group questioning. Use the questions as a starting point for independent research or for short discussions during any downtime. Also, remove questions from the chart, shuffle and distribute to small groups to research the answers.
  • Invite young people to pair up and challenge them to ask their partners only two questions to discover something unique about each other. Have them share with the group.
  • Play What if? Create silly, impractical and big-concept questions and invite young people to logically discuss them. This provides opportunities to demonstrate how to use different ways to find answers and to break up questions about big concepts into multiple questions about the components relevant to the concept.
    • What would happen if there was no friction?
    • What would happen if the world stopped spinning?
    • What would happen if it rained nonstop for a month?
    • How many flashlights would it take to equal the brightness of the sun?
    • How would a gasoline-powered car work on the moon?
    • How would you find answers if Google (or the internet) did not exist?

  • Present an answer to young people and have them brainstorm questions that could elicit that answer.

    • Atoms
    • Sunlight, water and air
    • Isaac Newton
    • 238,900 miles
    • Octopus

  • Play 20 Questions themed to the topic at hand. For example: Have a young person think of a famous scientist. Have the remaining group take turns asking 20 different yes-or-no questions to ask the person in order to discover the identity of the mystery scientist.

Blend Depth and Complexity

Explain the difference between low-level, close-ended questions and high-level, open-ended questions.

Low-level, close-ended questions generate short or one-word answers. These types of questions tend to close off both discussion and thinking.

Did your experiment work?

High-level, open-ended questions generate more thoughtful and complex answers and encourage discussion.

How did you know that your experiment worked?

Invite young people to practice developing high-level questions. Have them begin by asking simple, low-level questions and then rephrasing the questions as open-ended questions that lead to more robust information. Discuss the different types of questions that can be asked and the thinking each type of question encourages. Use Bloom's Taxonomy as a guide to discuss the question types and the outcomes they produce.

Challenge young people to design a quiz about a given topic using question types from each of Bloom's six levels of thinking skills.

Question Yourself

Make time in your activities for self-reflection. Discuss how it's not only important to ask questions of others, but also to ask ourselves questions. Researching, experimenting and discovering answers for ourselves is very rewarding. We are able to grow as individuals and refine our skills when we take time to reflect on our work and actions. By providing young people with the tools for reflection, we impart the valuable questioning skill of self-assessment. Use Bloom's Taxonomy to help young people formulate self-assessment questions that they can use to evaluate their knowledge and performance.

  • Knowledge: What did I do? How could I explain?
  • Comprehension: How could I summarize it? What did I learn?
  • Application: How could I use this? What would happen if ...?
  • Analyzing: How does it fit with what I already know? What does this remind me of?
  • Synthesis: What should I do next? How could I improve it?
  • Evaluation: How well did I do? What is a better solution?

Information is always accessible in our internet-connected world. Everyone potentially knows everything, so it is more important than ever to know the right questions to ask. Knowing an answer may help young people in school, but knowing how to ask the right questions will help them for life.


Written by Andy the Science Wiz, NAA STEM Specialist Andy Allan.

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