It all starts with a great QUESTION
By Paul Eyler, M.Ed, Founder of mtInQuire.com / TEKSvideo.com and Science Specialist at Region 7
Are the sun and moon the same size? The answer may surprise you! We will delve into this example question shortly.
With the profound opportunity of training science teachers across Texas, one of the most critical points of focus I initiate with teachers is great questioning strategies.
This is where understanding truly starts…with a good question.
As teachers, we ask ourselves, “why aren’t these kids getting it?” or “why don’t they seem interested in such and such?” It most likely goes back to the lack of a reason for learning. A lack of interest because there is nothing specifically engaging them intellectually.
However, most teachers feel ill-equipped to engage students with engaging multifaceted questions that cause students to be fully enamored with finding an answer. What many teachers lose sight of is the root word of “question.” It all goes back to “quest.” Do you call upon your students to embark on an adventurous quest? Instead of trying to push them into learning the content, why not ignite that innate human desire of inquiry to seek out answers to things that puzzle us and challenge us.
As a student, if you TOLD me to read chapter so and so and then answer the even questions at the end, what purpose do I truly have in doing this work? I would most likely do it out of compliance and not a desire to learn. This approach intellectually handicaps the natural learning process.
Teachers should always begin with a reachable question. One that makes students WANT to think. One that has a potential for multiple answers. One that is derived from their standards.
It is imperative that the question be at a moderate level of challenge. This ensures that “low” students will try to embark on an answer and not just give up right out of the gate. It also ensures that “high” students aren’t bored out of their wits and end up disturbing the class with their antics. As mentioned earlier, a good question provides a reason for learning. This is what should push the student to discover…not just compliance to teacher demand. It is also a great intrinsic motivator (an internal reward mechanism) since most people WANT to find an answer to an enticing question.
So let’s analyze the “simple” space question I proposed earlier: Are the sun and moon the same size?
Before we actually answer this question, I want to walk you through the process of receiving answers.
A practical and engaging way to receive student responses to this question is to have them answer not with words but with their location within the classroom. What do I mean location? I do something called The Stand-up Yes/No True/False Survey whereby students must stand on either side of the room in accordance to which answer they give. So if ones thinks the answer to be TRUE or YES, they stand on the left side of the room. Now the point of this activity is not to gather accurate formative assessment data because you won’t get that. Most students will look to the “smart” kid and follow them to either side without thinking for themselves. However, it is critical that students are given some independent quite think time first and then inform them that they are required to JUSTIFY their response with other students who have congregated to their same side.
Now concerning our specific space question, the surprising multifaceted answer is: yes AND no! Yes, the sun and Moon are the same size AND No they are not the same size. The most likely response from students (and teachers) is NO and their justification tends to be observational measurements/data from NASA spacecraft and other empirical evidences. Of course they are correct.
However, I will stand on the YES side as the “antagonizer” (of which I’m usually the only one.) Now I am ALSO correct. “How can that be?” is the usual response I receive when supporting the lonely side of the class-sized answer sheet. That is when I direct them to the image in the slide show. “What do you see?” That is when the light begins to flicker to life in their minds and if you look closely, you can see this occurring through their facial expressions. Finally I get the answer, “A solar eclipse!” I then ask what the earth-bound observer notices about celestial sizes in this event based on the picture. Of course they studiously mention that both objects APPEAR to be the same size from the perspective of the observer.
After the “oh’s and ah’s” wear off, I dig into the true goal of the question: differentiate between the two terms absolute and apparent. To make it fully set in to their neurons, I ask them to stretch out their arms and stick their thumbs up…and make it so that their thumbs cover my head (I am standing across the room from them at a distance.) Finally I ask whether their thumbs are as big as my head or is my head as big as their thumbs. At this point we conclude with some math. Did you realize that a solar eclipse perfectly demonstrates a perfect ratio on an astronomical scale: the Sun’s diameter is 400x the size of the Moon while ALSO 400x the distance from the Moon. How awesome is that! And this is barring the fact that the only location in the known universe for this perfect occurrence just so happens to be where the only known intelligent life (observer) exist…good ‘ol planet Earth! The odds are literally beyond astronomical.
So what did my students discover from such a simple reachable question? They learned language (absolute and apparent), math (ratios / size / distance / scale), critical thinking (multifaceted answer choice of both a yes and no response), astronomy, and even social studies (this is when we explore how Mr. Columbus used his knowledge of eclipses to save his crew from the perturbed indigenous tribe of Jamaica.)
So the sun and moon appear nearly the same size as seen from Earth. Yet we know they are absolutely different sizes. It’s all about perspective!
By using what I call I3 – Ignite Innate Inquiry, teachers can guide students on the adventure of learning by asking great thought provoking questions that engage students on a quest to find answers.