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How Important are Generative Questions in NGSS Storylines?

Posted by Staff Writer on Apr 25, 2023

How Important are Generative Questions in NGSS Storylines?

Storyline pedagogy gives students a chance to decide what they want to learn more about. To take the lead in the classroom, our students need to know how to ask good questions. Teachers can model intellectual curiosity to help students learn how to think more critically. Asking authentic questions, ones that we don’t know the answer to, is an important part of storyline pedagogy. For example, ‘What do you think of when you think of wind,’ is an authentic question. When compared to the question, ‘What is wind,’ this example highlights how asking better questions encourages students to connect personally with science phenomena and think deeper about its impact on their life. The first question is both authentic and generative, because it sparks even more questions. Generative questions help power student-led investigation and NGSS storylines, as the students build knowledge around an anchor phenomenon and pick the next question they want to investigate. 

What are Generative Questions?

Generative questions spark curiosity. They generate even more questions and encourage students to look deeper. Generative questions often start with ‘What if’ and ‘How would?’ These types of questions can be used to kick-start a lively classroom discussion, encourage personal reflection, and promote deeper learning. Generative questions are important because they promote learning as a tool for understanding the world around us. Rather than a list of facts to memorize, a NGSS storyline powered by generative questions shows students what scientists and engineers do every day – find a problem and work with their peers to solve it.

In contrast, more traditional teaching methods depend on students answering review and procedural questions. For example: ‘What comes next,’ ‘Do you have your pencil ready,’ and ‘What should you be doing right now?’ These procedural questions are used to keep students on track and paying attention, while the teacher transfers their knowledge to the student. Review questions ask students to repeat back information, for example: ‘What did you just hear,’ ‘What’s the meaning of [blank],’ or ‘What did you write down?’ These types of questions encourage students to memorize facts, but they don’t require deeper learning, connecting new information to prior knowledge, or making personal connections. The students are being asked to remember and repeat, but not to explain or use that knowledge in a different context.

Constructive Questions and Hands-on Investigation 

Another type of question that can be used to power NGSS storylines are constructive questions. Constructive questions ask students to interpret, connect, or extend their reasoning. Students who are engaging in hands-on investigation with scientific or engineering design processes are using a framework of constructive questions to answer a question or solve a problem while actively making connections between the data they collect and the hypothesis they want to test. When we use real-world examples in the classroom, we ask students to extend their thinking from the classroom into the real world.

Student-led classroom discussion, including Socratic dialogue and scientific discourse, gives learners the opportunity to practice their constructive reasoning in action. This also occurs when students come back together after hands-on investigation to form a consensus on their conclusions. During this process, they are reporting on their findings, explaining their hypothesis, and answering questions from their peers. Instead of following a script for a science lab and reporting the results, these students are working together to interpret the data they’ve collected, extend their findings and new knowledge into the real world, and connect what they are learning to what they already know. This requires a high level of rigor and encourages deeper thinking and personal reflection.

Facilitative Questions Help Make Thinking Visible 

Facilitative questions ask students to explain or elaborate. Teachers who implement formative assessment checkpoints during student planning for a student-led investigation are using facilitative questions to encourage students to make their thinking visible. Sometimes, when we ask students to explain their thinking behind an investigation plan, they can spot and change mistakes before they occur. Facilitative questions during a classroom debrief require students to explain their thinking and respond directly to feedback from their peers. When students make their thinking visible, everyone in the class can learn from their knowledge, experience, and critical thinking skills. When students and teachers make their thinking visible, we’re helping to demystify the practice of creating new knowledge, and making understanding the world around us simpler and more achievable.

When teachers ask facilitative questions, like ‘Can you tell me more about that,’ ‘Can you tell me why you think of flying a kite,’ or ‘When you think of the wind, how is that engaging the wind at all,’ they are prompting students to use thinking moves. In doing so, teachers are modeling how scientists use evidence and reasoning, and teaching students that they have the knowledge, skills, and experience to better understand the world around them through scientific investigation. 

Deeper Learning with Storyline Pedagogy and Generative Questions

When students take the lead in building a storyline around an anchor phenomenon, generative questions help them focus their investigation on what new information they can discover. These questions help spark curiosity and kick-off classroom discussion on the upcoming student-led investigation. They also encourage students to connect their knowledge across concepts, lessons, and even different subjects. 

For example, ‘What are the parts of the water cycle,’ is a review question. To generate more engaged classroom discussion we could ask, ‘How could the increase in temperatures worldwide impact the water cycle here in [the U.S., state, or locality?]’ The second question has more than one answer. It could prompt students to wonder about how water levels change locally and impact flora and fauna, disaster response, and other environmental and other earth science topics. It encourages the students to connect the discussion to their daily lives. That is what generative questions do. We may not know in advance what the students’ responses will be, but they will give the teacher insight into what the students are thinking and what their experience is with the phenomenon. 

Using students' own questions to drive an NGSS storyline forward is pivotal to encouraging deeper learning. Their questions are the thread that ties each episode of hands-on discovery together. Generative, constructive, and facilitative questions are the curious questions. It’s important for teachers to model asking these types of questions and listening to the answers, then asking curious follow-up questions. When teachers model intellectual curiosity, we help students improve their own critical thinking skills. This is the type of thinking that jump-starts true scientific discovery. When thinking becomes a tool for learning, discovering, and figuring out questions that matter to us, we’ve succeeded in creating a culture of learning in the classroom.

Encouraging Deeper Learning with NGSS Storylines

Topics: Socratic dialogue, NGSS Storylines

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