Choosing questions that are right for these students, at this time

What scientifically-honest questions can I ask my students to tangle with, based on their current ideas and expectations?

This question is at the heart of a lot of my classroom’s success and also anxiety.  When I ask good questions, students are more likely to evaluate evidence thoroughly, seek contradictions, resolve those contradictions, hold each other and themselves accountable to what we know so far, and generate significant new questions for our next round of research.

A poorly-chosen question reveals itself when students don’t have enough information or skill to make sense of the information they find, or can’t think of ways to find information at all, or don’t care about the answer, or can’t see how it’s related to their goal of becoming an electronics tech.


I’m intrigued by what’s going on in this video, a clip of a TED talk featuring Bobby McFerrin (of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” fame, but also a brilliant performer of many genres).  For maximum benefit, try singing along.

The question McFerrin asks himself seems to be, “what musically honest question can I ask this audience?”

The question he poses to the audience is, “What’s the next note?”

This question works because he was able to

  • anticipate the ideas participants are likely to have about the topic (the pentatonic scale is surprisingly cross-cultural)
  • anticipate which ideas are difficult to learn, and which ones are not (he avoids certain scale degrees and uses a tune that’s going to be structurally familiar to an American audience)
  • choose a question that’s simple enough for people to make sense of using the tools they already have
  • make the task interesting (and the big picture “audible”) by doing the more complicated work himself.

I’m getting much better at anticipating common initial ideas and eliciting my students’ thinking.  I’m still not great at choosing the question, or choosing the right moments to suggest the question.

I’m not sure what I make of this.  In the video, the participants are not exactly learning something new.  They are realizing something they didn’t realize that they already knew.  This doesn’t give me much insight into tackling the topics that are difficult to learn.  But I keep thinking about it.


  1. Evaluate real damage, for instance trace the BBT oil spill and its impact. My favorite math question ever was: if oil creates a slick one molecule thick, how wide is the slick from the Exxon Valdez Oil spill?

    You research, you are astounded, you really feel something when that kind of question is posed!

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