• Things Education

Why do students find it difficult to answer questions?

Updated: Feb 5

...and what we can do about it.

Hello! How have you been? I hope you and people around you are safe and taking enough precautions to get over the latest wave. Through Things in Education, we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.

In the third edition of Things in Education, we focus on inquiry-based learning (IBL). Specifically, we explore how challenging it is for educators and students to transition from lecture-based classrooms to inquiry classrooms. We also write about scaffolding and how it helps in student learning not only in inquiry classrooms, but also in any type of classroom. We hope you enjoy this read. As always, we would love to hear from YOU about what struck you or stuck with you, about similar successes and frustrations, and about your feedback and suggestions on our write-ups! Please leave a comment or write to us at info@things-education.com. Thanks to each and everyone of you who have publically and privately shared their feedback.


Transitioning to Inquiry-based Learning

Students learn about rotation of Earth and revolution of Earth around the Sun in middle school. After reading about these phenomena, a student can be asked about seasons or why she has never seen the Sun overhead in Delhi at 12 noon. An inquiry classroom helps students understand the why behind the sentences in the textbooks!

Arguably the biggest challenge in conducting inquiry-based learning especially in its most open-ended form is to reconcile a rigid curriculum with the looser structure of inquiry pedagogy. How can a rigid curriculum based on one (or a few) textbook(s) be taught in a free-flowing student-controlled manner?

Taking a step back, let’s first explore what inquiry-based learning (IBL) is. Inquiry Learning is a process of questioning and manipulating objects or concepts to discover, offer evidence and construct knowledge of the world around you. Inquiry classrooms are equitable, allowing students to pursue their own curiosities. Inquiry classrooms are inclusive, as a student has the option to contextualise the curriculum to their own life. For example, inquiring deeply about the local caste traditions in the context of understanding the birth and existence of the caste system in India helps students understand how systematic discrimination affects jobs, education, housing in their local areas/towns. In summary, inquiry-based learning can be reconciled with the textbook by making the textbook the first exploration into the subject and not the end goal of learning.

The transition from traditional classrooms to inquiry classrooms is particularly challenging for students. Even post-graduate students feel uncomfortable with the fact that they must answer questions by researching, conducting experiments, or deductive reasoning. In a school context this difference is even starker as students are used to being given answers by the teacher. But in an inquiry classroom, the teacher is helping students answer questions. To make this transition there are a few things that successful educators do.

Firstly, the switch from lecture-based classrooms to open-ended inquiry-based classrooms does not happen overnight. Once the teacher has decided that they want to use IBL in their classroom, they need to start preparing their students for the shift. This is done by slowly moving from lectures in which information was given, to the teacher asking questions and helping students find answers. This helps students in understanding the transition of their role in class. They need to understand and accept that their role has changed from being passive listeners of information to active seekers of information.

Note that students are not asking their own questions here in this transition period. As students become more comfortable with the culture of curiosity in the classroom, they need to be encouraged to ask their own questions based on their readings from the textbook. This will lead to true open-ended inquiry.

Secondly, there needs to be a shift in the culture of the classroom. Students in schools mostly suffer from FONK – the fear of not knowing. In an inquiry classroom, not knowing is the first step. Asking questions about something to find out the answers happens only once students are okay with not knowing if they know how to find out.

Classroom setup is a crucial aspect of inquiry. John Dewey is credited with starting the theory and practice of inquiry in classrooms. He and his wife were looking for classroom furniture and explained their needs to a particularly sharp furniture store owner. The store owner is said to have shrugged and said something like, “I cannot help you. We don’t have want you need. What you need are tables at which students can work. But we only have ones that are for listening.” Workstations are better than desks for inquiry learning.

Finally, a crucial aspect of any learning is the scaffolding a teacher provides the students to help their learning. If it is possible to imagine, scaffolding is even more important in inquiry classrooms.


Scaffolding for Deep Understanding

Scaffolding is important in inquiry classrooms. And especially important when there are changes that the student is experiencing like moving from a lecture-based classroom to an inquiry classroom. At the same time scaffolding is important to ensure student learning and for teachers to get evidence-based feedback on student learning. So what is scaffolding and how to we practice it in our classes?

Ms. Bose is looking forward to her next class. After all, it’s about the human circulatory system – the heart, the lungs, the arteries, the veins – her favourite topic ever since she was a student herself! Her detailed lesson plan is in place – a clear image and video of the human circulatory system, and detailed notes of the features and function of each component.

“The heart, veins and arteries circulate blood throughout the body,” she begins, pointing to the picture. “Can you see them?”

The students nod in agreement.

This is followed by a professionally-edited video showing the pathway of blood through the heart, lungs, and the rest of the body, and its role in distributing oxygen and nutrients that keep us alive and healthy. Ms Bose finds the video absolutely riveting, pausing it every few minutes to share her notes with the students; the students doodle and murmur, filling the class with restless energy.

“Now,” asks Ms Bose, clicking the pause button as the video ends, “how does the circulatory system help us?” Expecting a volley of responses, she is surprised when all she gets are blank stares in return.

Thirty minutes are up, and Ms Bose isn’t sure if students have learnt anything.

That evening, she takes some time to reflect, asking herself two questions: 1. Was the concept beyond the students' comprehension level?

The concept of the circulatory system is fairly new for students in this grade. They are aware of the names of the different organs, but it is difficult for them to understand how these different organs work together in a system, playing different roles.

2. What prior knowledge do students have, and how can they relate it to the concept?

Students have already learnt about the human respiratory system. They understand how the lungs help in the exchange of gas to supply the body with oxygen for energy. This can be used to build connections between different organs and systems working together.

Realising now that she needs to provide students with the tools and context they need to understand this new concept, she decides to try a different approach.

Building key vocabulary

The next morning, Ms Bose begins her lesson with a simple piece of chalk.

We talked about the circulatory system yesterday. Do you remember the most important words we used? Body!

That’s right! Let me write it up here on the board. What else? …[silence]…

Any organs that you remember? Heart! Lungs!

Good job. Can you tell me what you know about the heart? It beats…

Yes, it beats. What else? It needs to keep beating to keep us alive.

And so they go on, discussing each term in simple words, sharing what they already know. This practice helps in not only activating students’ prior knowledge but also in identifying their misconceptions and equipping them with the vocabulary needed for a clear understanding of the concept.

Asking guiding questions

Next comes a crucial discussion – how the heart and the lungs work together. Such information can overwhelm students, and so Ms Bose decides to carefully guide the discussion with well-chosen questions.

We learnt about the respiratory system last month, and about our lungs… so how is it that our lungs are part of the circulatory system as well? …[silence]…

Hmm, have you noticed what happens to your rate of breathing while running? It increases!

We need to take many breaths more quickly.

And why do you think that happens? …[silence]…

What is our body spending when we run? Energy…

And what do we need from the air when we are low on energy? Oxygen! Our body uses oxygen to get energy through respiration!

What about your heart rate? What happens to it when you run! It increases as well… Our heart beats really fast!

That’s correct. What relationship do we see between our breathing rate and heart rate then? When one increases, the other does too!

Well done! So are our lungs connected to our heart in some way?

Guiding questions are like rungs of a ladder – they allow students to move towards higher levels of thinking, one step at a time. The discussion in Ms Bose’s class goes ahead with such guiding questions, and students conclude that the circulatory system works closely with the respiratory system. In the lungs, blood takes up the oxygen that is circulated by the circulatory system. The pumping of the heart helps the blood to keep moving.

Chunking the problem

Now that students understand the roles of the different parts of the circulatory system,

Ms Bose is tempted to show students a labelled diagram of the system. But, the students aren’t there yet. She knows she needs to give students smaller chunks of the bigger picture before putting it all together. She asks students to separately trace the pathway of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood between the lungs and the heart and between the heart and the body tissues.

Putting all the pieces together

Students are now ready to see the bigger picture, having activated their prior knowledge, having taken one step at a time (with guiding questions), and having understood the smaller parts (by solving chunks of the problem).

To help them visualize the pathway of blood in the circulatory system, Ms Bose asks students to complete a flowchart. But an empty flowchart will not be useful – Ms Bose fills it in partially to help orient students.

And… success! With some questions and discussions, all students are able to fill in the flowchart! Ms Bose has concrete proof of learning.


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Edition: 1.3

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