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When Is Asking Questions a Science Practice?

Scientific vs. pedagogical questions

Science and Children—November/December 2021 (Volume 59, Issue 2)

By Akarat Tanak and Deborah Hanuscin

Questions are an important foundation for science—as well as science learning. Spend time in any elementary classroom, and you will likely hear teachers and students asking a variety of questions. Though scientific questions arise in many ways, not all questions that arise in a science classroom are “scientific questions” (NGSS Lead States 2013). We argue that there is a need for teachers to understand this distinction in order to provide appropriate opportunities for students to engage in the scientific practice of asking questions.

The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize that the science and engineering practices, outlined in detail in Appendix F, represent what students are expected to do and are not teaching methods. However, the fact that asking questions is both a scientific practice and a teaching practice can lead to some confusion. In this article, we share how we engage our preservice teachers in critically considering the purpose and goal of asking questions in the science classroom, and how to distinguish between pedagogical questions, or those posed to guide students, and scientific questions, or those that are posed to guide investigations.

Three Scenarios

To begin, we present our preservice teachers with several scenarios that are typical of the ways in which questions might be posed in a science classroom. We ask them to consider, Which, if any of these, do you think represent the scientific practice of asking questions?

Scenario 1

A teacher held up a box of Neapolitan ice cream. When she opened it in front of the class and scooped some out, students were surprised. The whole scoop was brownish, instead of having the distinct stripes of strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. She asked the class, “What do you think happened to my ice cream?” Student ideas included, “It melted!” “It got too hot!” “You left it out of the freezer for too long!” She responded with another question, “Then, how did the melted ice cream become solid again?” The students suggested she had put it back in the freezer. She encouraged students by asking them to brainstorm some other things that can melt into a liquid and then become solid again. The students named ice, butter, wax, and chocolate. Next, the teacher informed students that they would get to investigate how different substances can melt and become solid again.

Scenario 2

A teacher launched a unit about properties of soils by showing two pots of corn plants (one that had grown much bigger than the other). She asked them to notice and share differences they observed and then asked them to speculate, “What has made these plants different?” Some students suggested one was older. Others proposed that one got more water and sunlight. She next showed three cups of different types of soil. “Your job is to test these types of soils to determine which is the best for growing corn.” She asked the class “What type of soil do corn plants like best?” Next, students worked together in small groups to formulate their plans and carry out their investigation.

Scenario 3

At the beginning of a unit focused on energy and engineering design, a teacher provided students with batteries, bulbs, and wires and posed the question, “How can we connect these materials so that the bulb lights?” Students generated a list of “rules” for connecting a complete circuit. The teacher then wondered aloud, “What would happen if we had two wires?” and distributed additional wires to students, challenging them to light the bulb again. The students quickly realized that the same rules applied for connecting the various components to make the bulb light. The teacher then provided the sentence starter, “What would happen if…?” and asked students to brainstorm questions of their own. Student questions included, “What would happen if we used two batteries?” and “What would happen if we used two bulbs?”

Debriefing the Scenarios

We find preservice teachers often have different opinions and focus on different elements of the three scenarios. Building a common understanding of the scientific practice of asking questions is essential to debriefing the scenarios in meaningful ways. After discussing preservice teachers’ ideas about this practice, we review the progression of this practice across the grade levels found in NGSS Appendix F (Table 1) and use that as a reference point for analyzing each scenario more deeply. We have found the following three questions are useful in guiding our discussion and in supporting preservice teachers in developing more nuanced understandings of questioning in science classrooms:

  • What is the purpose of asking questions?
  • Who should be asking questions?
  • What kinds of questions should be asked/what kinds of answers sought?

We use each of these questions to unpack the three scenarios in the sections that follow.

What is the purpose of asking questions in science and science classrooms?

Questions play a role in driving student learning (Chin and Chia 2004) and support the development of new knowledge by initiating the process of hypothesizing, predicting, interpreting, and explaining (Chin and Brown 2000). Similarly, teachers often use focus questions at the beginning of the lesson as a pedagogical tool to frame the scientific activities and investigations of the students (Forbes and Davis 2010; Tanak and Hanuscin 2020).

In Scenario 1, the teacher uses the opening question as a teaching strategy; the question is posed for a pedagogical as opposed to scientific purpose. By asking “What do you think happened to my ice cream?” the teacher is assessing students’ prior knowledge about a phenomenon related to changes in matter. As a teaching practice, the question’s open-endedness and person-centered wording is an effective strategy for eliciting student ideas—an important aspect of effective science instruction. Similarly, in Scenario 2, the question “What has made these plants different?” elicits students’ prior knowledge (though the wording perhaps implies that there is a correct answer the teacher is seeking, as opposed to students’ own ideas).

While the teachers’ questions in Scenarios 1 and 2 also provide a good segue into investigating and testing the ideas that students propose, there is a missed opportunity to model how to ask an investigable question or engage students in asking questions (scientific practice). In contrast, the teacher in Scenario 3 capitalizes on this opportunity. She first models then asks students to brainstorm questions about what would happen if they changed a variable in the design of their electric circuits. Providing question stems is an appropriate pedagogical strategy to support students in engaging in the scientific practice of asking questions. The purpose of these questions is to frame the planning and carrying out of investigations to answer those questions (another scientific practice).

Who should be asking the questions in science lessons?

Asking questions, like the other science and engineering practices, requires collaborative work between teachers and students. The student’s question is a key part of identifying what classroom community needs to figure out to explain phenomena. Teachers play an important role in facilitating the development of thoughtful questions worth investigating and supporting students in figuring out and refining their own questions (Reiser et al. 2017). However, in the first two scenarios, the teacher alone is asking questions. In contrast, in Scenario 3 the teacher asks a question but uses it to provide a model for students to ask their own questions. The teacher prompts students to generate their own questions about “What would happen if….?” after they hear the question “What would happen if we had two wires?” asked by the teacher. In this way, both students and the teacher play important roles in asking questions that are at the center of knowledge building in the classroom learning community (Reiser et al. 2017).

In the first two scenarios, the elicitation of students’ prior knowledge offers a possible starting point for engaging in asking questions. In Scenario 2, the teacher could ask students to formulate questions from their observations of differences between the two corn plants. For example, “Why is one plant smaller?” “Did one plant get more water?” “Are they the same kind of plant?” “Did they grow in the same type of soil?” The teacher’s role would then be to help students reframe these questions as investigative questions, such as “What causes plants to grow at different rates?” or “How does the soil type impact plant growth?” that would allow students to predict outcomes and identify cause-effect relationships.

What kinds of questions do scientists ask and what kinds of answers do they seek?

First and foremost, scientists ask testable questions, or those that can be answered with evidence through planning and carrying out science investigations, another scientific practice. The scientific practice of asking questions is also closely linked to the practice of constructing explanations. That is, scientific questions seek answers to how or why phenomena occur—not just descriptions of the phenomena themselves (McNeill, Berland, and Pelletier 2017). In Scenario 2, the teacher poses the question, “Which soil do corn plants like best?” In Scenario 3, the teacher and students are engaged in asking questions that help them consider different variables to change about the number of components they use to build a circuit, such as, “What would happen if we used two bulbs?” While the questions in these two scenarios can be an initial step in learning to ask questions (Table 1), they fall short of being explanatory questions. The answers to these kinds of questions is simply a report of what happened, or what McNeill and Berland (2017) problematize as “data as answers.” The answer to “Which soil types do corn plants like best?” could be answered with “sample A.” The answer to the question “What happens when we use two bulbs?” could be “Both bulbs are dim.” As such, all three scenarios fail to model the kinds of questions scientists ask and the kinds of answers they seek. Interestingly, though no scientific question is explicitly posed in Scenario 1, the question implied by the teachers’ stated purpose to investigate “how different substances can melt and become solid again” could provide an appropriate model of an explanatory question if phrased “How do different substances change from solid to liquid and back again?”

Table 1

Asking questions learning progression from NGSS Appendix F.

Asking questions in K–2 builds on prior experiences and progresses to simple descriptive questions.

  • Ask questions based on observations to find more information about the natural and/or designed world(s).
  • Ask and/or identify questions that can be answered by an investigation.

Asking questions in 3–5 builds on K–2 experiences and progresses to specifying qualitative relationships.

  • Ask questions about what would happen if a variable is changed.
  • Identify scientific (testable) and non-scientific (nontestable) questions.
  • Ask questions that can be investigated and predict reasonable outcomes based on patterns such as cause-and-effect relationships

Concluding Thoughts

Biggers (2018) showed that when teachers relied on questions provided by their curriculum materials, investigative questions in elementary classrooms were overwhelmingly teacher-directed, with no opportunities presented for students to develop their own questions for investigation. This suggests that teachers need to develop knowledge both about how to pose appropriate scientific questions for investigation, and how to support students in asking questions. We believe this activity supports both learning needs, as preservice teachers consider questions from the perspective of both teacher and student.

The three scenarios have been particularly useful in challenging the idea that the asking of any questions constitutes engagement in the scientific practice of asking questions. The activity prompts preservice teachers to distinguish between investigable/non-investigable questions, as well as identify strategies and opportunities for helping students pose and refine their initial questions to be investigable. Additionally, this provides preservice teachers with a strong rationale for adopting learner-centered approaches that provide students opportunities to pose the questions for investigation, as opposed to the teacher doing so.


Akarat Tanak is an associate professor at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, Thailand. Deborah Hanuscin ( is a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.


Biggers, M. 2018. Questioning questions: Elementary teachers’ adaptations of investigation questions across the inquiry continuum. Research in Science Education 48 (1): 1–28.

Chin, C., and D.E. Brown. 2000. Learning deeply in science: An analysis and reintegration of deep approaches in two case studies of grade 8 students. Research in Science Education 30 (2): 173–197.

Chin, C., and L.G. Chia. 2004. Problem-based learning: Using students’ questions to drive knowledge construction. Science Education 88 (5): 707–727.

Forbes, C.T., and E.A. Davis. 2010. Beginning elementary teachers’ beliefs about the use of anchoring questions in science: A longitudinal study. Science Education 94 (2): 365–387.

McNeill, K.L., and L. Berland. 2017. What is (or should be) scientific evidence use in K–12 classrooms? Journal of Research in Science Teaching 54 (5): 672–689.

McNeill, K.L., L.K. Berland, and P. Pelletier. 2017. Constructing explanations. In Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices, eds. C.V. Schwarz, C. Passmore, and B.J. Resier, 205–228. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Reiser, B., L. Brody, M. Novak, K. Tipton, and L. Adams. 2017. Asking questions. In Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices, eds C.V. Schwarz, C. Passmore, and B.J. Reiser, 90–108. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Tanak, A., and D. Hanuscin. 2020. Asking questions: An exploratory study of preservice teachers’ framing of classroom science investigations. Paper presented at ASTE 2020 International Conferences, January, 9–11, San Antonio, Texas.

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