Ask Small Questions First

Kyle Dimla, a high school environmental science and biology teacher, shares how he generates engagement and discussion in the classroom by asking small questions and using the see, think, and wonder framework.

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Kyle Dimla, ninth grade environmental science and 10th grade biology teacher.


Hi, everyone. My name is Kyle Dimla. I’m a ninth grade environmental science and 10th grade biology teacher. And the strategy that I want to share with you all today is to ask small questions first — but with using the see, think, wonder framework as you generate classroom discussion or elicit responses from student and guiding their thinking.

So this will be helpful because when I first started with teaching, I was asking really big questions and I was just getting blank stares, blank stares across the board because students kind of get overwhelmed, or maybe they’re shy and hesitant to respond, or maybe they don’t even know where to start their thinking.

So as I began to practice, I realized, you know, we really need to scaffold the way that we ask questions as we are guiding student thinking. So this strategy is helpful in generating student thinking and supporting the way that they process information, especially when you’re looking at things like dat, graphs, or maps.

Asking smaller questions first is designed to activate the thinking of students of all abilities and in the first steps of making sense of these graphs maps, and data. A thought process thinking strategy to guide a classroom n making sense of something. Interpreting data and science is a skill and it needs to be practiced and oftentimes when students are faced with a big question of like, “what does this tell you?” they kind of shut down or they are lost in their thoughts. They don’t even know where to look first. So that is what this strategy is for: is to guide student thinking in making sense of a graph or of data step by step.

And it can be used to assess and build student understanding throughout a lesson. So this strategy is structured in a way for a teacher to guide student thinking and it allows you, as a teacher, to formulate backup questions to really build upon the ideas that students are putting forth. So it also allows you to see if there’s any misconceptions and address them in real time. And that way you’re really,as a class, addressing and making sense of something.

It’s really helpful that before implementing this kind of questioning strategies to have back pocket questions. Think about what exactly would you anticipate students to say? So, for example, if we’re looking at a graph, what do you anticipate they’re going to point out first? And that way you have back pocket questions to kind of follow up and build on their thinking or dive deeper into what they’re looking at.

So one concrete model that I like to use is the “see, think, wonder” model. You might have seen this in like worksheets, or it can adapt it into activities on like a board and whatnot, but I like to use it as my model for the way that I ask smaller questions first. So, the first step is seeing. Pretty easy: you just ask students, “Okay, what do you see?” So, usually students will point out things like numbers, colors, labels. They might even point out trends, like if it’s going up or down. And if a student responds, “I don’t know”, then I usually ask a follow up question and direct them to a certain part and then say something like, “okay. So, if you’re not sure, what about this portion of the graph or what about this part of the map? Is that darker or is it lighter?” That way we’re able to take it step by step and break it down. The second step is getting students to think deeper. So this is the think part of this procedure. I’ll ask questions sort of like, “okay, so what do you think this value means? What does it say about this year? What do you think that means about this country versus that country?” when we’re looking at maps and data based on maps. And then third step is getting students to wonder — and this is like part of our critical thinking building aspect. I like to have students question data or question an image, beause that’s one of our fundamental practices of science. An example would be something like, “based on this part of the graph, what do you think is the big difference between this year and the graph and this year and the graph? What kind of question can you ask about that time span?” I’ve used this in previous lessons, for example, when studying human populations. I provided students two graphs. It was one of the population of Japan and the population of Uganda. The way that I had asked questions on this was with my “see” questions. I would ask something like, “what does red mean? And what differences do you see between these two graphs?” That way they’re not, we’re not starting off of making any inferences, we’re not trying to interpret it. We’re just trying to first make sense of the first features of these two graphs.

Next you get into thinking. So something I would ask would be: “Okay, what does the larger section in Japan’s graph mean? So do you think Uganda has an older or a younger population than Japan? Or what would this elderly population, what would that mean for Japan’s future population change?” Usually when I’m implementing this questioning strategy, I start out with the “what do you see?” and from there I start gauging student responses. Are they and how are they responding to it? What kind of responses are they giving? And that will help me identify where they’re struggling in their thinking. If a student has no response, I usually start counting to 10 in my head, just really slowly, and keeping my eyes on them because sometimes they need think time and we should allow that, allow them to have that time. And the important part is always to circle back because that way you are making sure that you’re continuing, practicing their thinking with them.

So, if it feels like asking individual students is unproductive — maybe it’s first period, students are like sleepy or not responding — well, one way that I like to still generate a discussion is I’ll ask one of those “see, think, wonder” questions, one of those smaller questions, and then have students discuss it with people next to them. That way it starts the discussion a little bit better and they’ll have something to share once you ask them to share with the class. In waiting for students, it is really important not to provide the answer. Instead. I like to follow with deeper questions. So we are kind of building on top of our smaller questions. That way you’re able to guide them in formulating their response and modeling what steps they should take in their thinking or thought process.

So, before we end, I would just like to recap a couple of main points. So ,as I implement this strategy, I want to make sure I come in with back pocket questions. So, anticipate what students would respond with, and make up questions and be prepared with those questions in order to continue and further their thinking down that pathway. It’s helpful to think like your students and think of what would they respond or say about these certain things. Be sure to guide students through this thinking process rather than providing answers, because we want to focus on the thinking skills and not really on giving them the content knowledge.

And lastly, just remember that students process information at different speeds and in different ways, so we should always allow room for that. With this strategy of asking smaller questions first, especially with the “see, think, wonder” model, we can allow them to formulate their thoughts and make sense of something that might be otherwise overwhelming.

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