Make Sure Your Questions Are “Juicy”

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What are the key skills we want education to impart, and what’s the best way to develop them?

Dennis M. Bartels, executive director of the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco, has an interesting article on the website of Scientific American that examines this question:

“More than a decade ago, cognitive scientists John D. Bransford and Daniel L. Schwartz, both then at Vanderbilt University, asked fifth graders and college students to create a recovery plan to protect bald eagles from extinction. Shockingly, the two groups came up with plans of similar quality (although the college students had better spelling skills).

The researchers decided to delve deeper, however. They asked both groups to generate questions about important issues needed to create recovery plans. On this task, they found large differences.

College students focused on critical issues of interdependence between eagles and their habitats (‘What type of eco-system supports eagles?’ and ‘What different kinds of specialists are needed for different recovery areas?’).

Fifth graders tended to focus on features of individual eagles (‘How big are they?’ and ‘What do they eat?’). The college students had cultivated the ability to ask questions, the cornerstone of critical thinking. They had learned how to learn.”

At the Exploratorium, Bartels continues, he and his staff are working on ways to develop this learning-to-learn capacity in visitors:

“We recently studied how learning to ask good questions can affect the quality of people’s scientific inquiry. We found that when we taught participants looking at one exhibit to ask ‘What if . . . ?’ and ‘How can . . . ?’ questions that nobody present would know the answer to and that would spark exploration, they engaged in better inquiry at the next exhibit—asking more questions, performing more experiments and making better interpretations of their results.

Specifically, their questions became more comprehensive at the new exhibit. Rather than merely asking about something they wanted to try (‘What happens when you block out a magnet?’), they tended to include both cause and effect in their question (‘What if we pull this one magnet out and see if the other ones move by the same amount?’).

Asking juicy questions appears to be a transferable skill for deepening collaborative inquiry into the science content found in exhibits.” (Read more here.)

I love that phrase—”juicy questions.” It’s not enough to just ask questions, any old questions. We need to be able to come up with questions that are generative, that lead to new and surprising answers.

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2 Responses to “Make Sure Your Questions Are “Juicy””

  1. When the questions are juicy, even the rascals’ eyes light up.

  2. Ariel says:

    Great post! I read the complete SA article and felt that the last paragraph is most telling… that schools today do not allow for “juicy” or inquiry questions because of a variety of factors…

    So, here is my question… I can see how we can easily move away from “content” to skill focused learning/teaching and incorporate the skill of teaching students to pose inquiry based questions in every subject SAVE for math… and not because of high-school requirements (because if we teach students how to learn, they can apply what they have learned to the new material or learn the material without struggling). but because of standardized testing requirements (ERBs, MCAS, SSATs, SATs)…

    Ideally, we would just give the kids the followng: here are the concepts we are covering in March… and at the end of the month, you will present your understanding, application, and integration of the concepts. Now Go! Yet, aren’t we still “teaching to the test” if we have and use standardized tests? If our kids require them, then how can we fully move to inquiry based learning?

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