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Productive Questions
Dr. Vickie Harry

Children, even at a very young age, formulate theories and ideas for just about everything, and these ideas play a role in the learning experience. Through the use of appropriate questions at the right time, teachers can elicit these ideas and facilitate the learning process in a meaningful way. Questions that assist teachers with gaining information about children’s concepts and ideas and at the same time promote the formation of children’s understanding are productive questions (Jos, 1985).

Productive questions promote science as a way of doing and encourage activity while constructing knowledge. The answers generated by productive questions are derived from first-hand experiences involving practical actions with materials. In addition, productive questions encourage an awareness of the possibility of more than one correct answer to the question. Children answer on their own developmental levels and the teacher views achievement as what is learned through the process of arriving at the answer. All children have success answering productive questions.

Unproductive questions promote science as information and derive answers from secondary sources by talking and reading. Questions that do not promote children’s thinking ask about knowledge of words, or repetition of words given earlier by the teacher or found in a book. Verbally fluent children who have confidence and proficiency with words most typically achieve success in answering unproductive questions with the correct end product (right answer). Often times, unproductive questions require a simple yes or no answer.

1) Attention-Focusing Questions:
The simplest form of productive questions is the straightforward “Have you seen?” or “What do you notice?” type of question. These questions are indispensable for fixing children’s attention on using their senses and for encouraging children to use the science process skills of observing and communicating during the exploration phase of an investigation or experiment. Additional examples of attention-focusing productive question starters are: “What are they doing….?” and “How does it feel/sound/look?”

2) Measuring and Counting Questions:
Quantitative questions encourage sharper observations and communications. Carefully phrased measuring and counting questions help children organize their thinking and unify similar concepts or ideas through the use of grouping or sets. Children use the science process skills of measuring and classifying as they check accuracy and use new instruments. Examples of measuring and counting questions include: “How many…?”, “How often…?”, “How long…?”, and “How much…?”.

3) Comparison Questions:
Comparison questions ask children to identify number relationships, develop concepts of alike and different, quantify the number of ways things are alike or different, and describe how things fit together. The science processes of observing, measuring, classifying, and communicating are used by children as they answer comparison questions. Comparison question starters include: “How do…fit together?”, “How are…different?”, “In how many ways are…alike?”, and “In how many ways do…differ?”

4) Action Questions:
Action questions involve children in the science process skills of predicting, investigating, and experimenting. Finding the answers to “What happens if…?” and “What would happen if you…?” engages children the process of inquiry to discover an answer through investigation and experimentation. Asking children to make predictions about the outcomes of investigations or experiments stimulates thinking about variables, hypotheses, and conclusions affecting the investigation before it begins.

5) Problem-Posing Questions:
“Can you find a way to…?” and “Can you figure out how to…?” questions pose problems to children and encourage children to devise methods for testing hypotheses and formulating conclusions. When answering problem-posing questions, children do science as they utilize the science process skills to discover the answer to the question. Before asking problem-posing questions, children need exploration time to provide time to discover the materials, possibilities, and impossibilities.

6) Reasoning Questions:
In science, the question, “How does this work?” can be very intimidating to children.  Encouraging children to think about how things work or questioning children about how something happens, requires the use of productive reasoning questions . Answering productive reasoning questions engages children in the science process skills of interpreting data, defining operationally, evaluating, and formulating conclusions. “What are some reasons to explain…” and “How would you explain…” are examples of reasoning questions that invite children to answer without fear of being wrong. Asking why? in science can also be intimidating. A carefully timed, “Why do you think?” question can be an appropriate productive reasoning question.

Productive questions offer children opportunities to use the science process skills to discover multiple answers to questions posed by the teacher. Children ascertain that there is often more than one answer to productive questions. More importantly, productive questions cannot be answered by using a simple yes or no response. Productive questions require children to apply attention, focus, measuring or counting, comparison, action, problem solving, or reasoning before responding. Meaningful science inquiry begins as children ask themselves or their classmates productive questions about the circumstances of their lives and the events of their classroom environment.
Jos, E. (1985). The right question at the right time. In Wynne Harlan (Ed.), Primary Science… Taking the Plunge. Oxford: Heinemann.
Internet Links
Questioning and Science Talks
This is a post by a college professor dealing with Questioning and Science Talks. He provides a real life example, using the situations his students are in.

Helping Your Child Learn Science
This site gives a way to help students gain interest in science and to begin asking questions in order to find answers.

Science Teaching Strategies - Classroom Questioning
This site discusses why questions are central to science. Helpful hints when asking questions to students are provided. Also, guide questions are listed.

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Reina O'Hale
Executive Director, MAIS
Madrid, Spain

Dr. Ken Mechling - Project Director
1305 Robinwood Drive
Clarion, PA 16214 USA