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December 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 4

Will Plants Drink Green Water?

Instructional Strategies
Education once seemed easier. The teacher presented a well constructed lesson, made the assignment, and checked to see whether students did the assignment correctly. The principal watched the lesson, judged its adequacy, and presented a critique to the teacher. Today we realize that getting the answers right does not equal learning, any more than a satisfactory evaluation improves a teacher's instruction. As an elementary school principal and a teacher of 2nd grade students, we wonder if we can approach instruction and teacher evaluation in ways that promote the involvement and learning of students and of ourselves. Examining the questions students ask is one way of addressing this issue.

Why Questions?

When students ask questions about a topic, they are often signaling a willingness to engage in exploring the subject matter (Dillon 1986). Students who actively engage in learning are students who learn more (Brophy 1983, Finn 1993). Involving students in their learning through their questions can focus them on the content and skills we want them to learn. Further, student questions give us a glimpse into students' thinking and understanding. We can address misunderstandings more directly if we know what they are.
Inviting and using student questions is easy to imagine and hard to do. Teachers have content to cover, skills to teach, and behavior to manage. Patterns of discourse in classrooms are well established and often are hard to change even when all parties are willing (Alvermann and Hayes 1989). As educators, we are interested in seeing student questions become an integral part of instruction. How can a teacher become more sensitive to the questions students ask? How can a principal help?

A Process Dialogue

The following dialogue shows what happened when a teacher (Erian) and a principal (Terry) started paying particular attention to students' questions.
Terry: I knew that Erian took the questions of her students seriously. She prominently displayed lists of student questions in her classroom. I often observed her in deep discussion with her students but I wanted to learn more. Frustrated by the absence of written information about how teachers effectively use student questions, I asked Erian to participate in an unusual observation. I audiotaped Erian teaching her students about the capillary effect in plants how water is able to travel up a plant's stem. While taping, I noted which student spoke and something of what each one said so that I could identify the voices on the tape as I transcribed them.
I noted several questions that seemed significant. Of obvious importance was Lee's question, "How does the water get from the roots, up the stem, to the flower?" Clearly this was the central question of the lesson, and Erian referred to this question repeatedly as she discussed the upcoming experiment.
A second question caught my attention. Daniel had asked quietly, "Will the flower drink green water?" It surprised me a little that Erian did not follow up on this question. Daniel exposed a fundamental misunderstanding about water and flowers. I wondered what he might have meant. Did he think that flowers had some kind of judgment and could decide what to drink? Or did Daniel think that something about the "greenness" of the water would make it undrinkable? I eagerly anticipated hearing Erian's thoughts.
Erian: I set out the materials I would need and outlined what I wanted to cover. Preparing for a lesson that focused on the questions and responses of my students made me a little anxious. Would I have enough information to answer their questions? Would students be interested enough to want more information? Would I be able to present an organized lesson if I detoured for students' questions?
Knowing that the principal was taping the lesson, I listened to all students' comments, not just the solicited ones. Two questions stuck out in my mind throughout the lesson: Lee's question, "How does the water get from the roots, up the stem, to the flower?" and Scott's question, "Can a flower grow without roots?" I responded to both questions in the lesson.
I was excited about sharing with Terry my thoughts on these interchanges and how they had affected the lesson. I was not going to a post observation conference to just listen to somebody else's observations; I was going to have an opportunity to share data that I had collected.
Terry: When we met for our conference, I was prepared to get Erian talking by showing her the questions and finding out what was going through her mind at the time. Erian, however, had obviously been thinking; she had considered the students' questions carefully and was ready to talk. I was impressed with the way she had selected the questions and focused on the most important ones. However, she never mentioned Daniel's question about the green water. I had to get out the notes and show her the question. I probed, trying to understand what criteria she used in deciding to sustain or drop a student question.
Erian: Three questions stood out during the post observation conference. These questions represented the implicit criteria I used for deciding which questions to address:
Lee: "How does the water get from the roots, up the stem, to the flower?" I had him repeat the question. I went back to it later and I used it throughout the lesson. Why? It went directly with my lesson plan. I was already prepared with materials to address this question, and I was encouraged to hear a student express natural curiosity about the topic.
Scott: "Can a flower grow without roots?" I validated this question because it tied into a previous lesson on roots. It also created curiosity about future lessons.
Daniel: "Will the flower drink green water?" To be perfectly honest, I didn't even remember this question until Terry pointed it out. Then I had a vague recollection of it. When Terry asked me what criteria I used to decide not to address this question, I wasn't sure. I had never consciously thought about my criteria for determining whose questions get validated in my classroom and whose will be deemed unworthy.
In hindsight, Daniel's question fit none of the boxes I had already determined went with this lesson. I was not prepared to discuss anything that detracted from the lesson on how the water gets from the root to the flower. I knew the answer to his question of course it will drink green water. The food coloring had not changed the water. Therefore, the question was unworthy in fact, I thought, a silly question.
Terry: I think I do a good job of conducting observations. Teachers are always appreciative and frequently mention that their lessons are thoroughly analyzed. Yet no one had ever responded like this before. Erian was genuinely surprised by some of my records of her lesson. We later talked about this observation several times; and in a workshop we both attended, she publicly discussed the observation and what she had learned. I was left to contemplate two questions. What was so different about this observation? What was it about the hundreds of observations I had done in the past that had made them ineffectual by comparison?
Erian: After this experience, I was left with some unsettling and important questions. It is frightening how much power I have in the classroom. I decide which questions are worthy of being pursued and which ones get a slight nod of the head, indulgent smile, no response, or even a reprimand.
What are my criteria for deciding which questions I will pursue? In what ways do I dismiss the questions that will not be discussed further? Will this approach encourage future questions? When and how much should I deviate from my lesson plan to indulge the natural curiosity of my students? What strategies can I incorporate into my plans that naturally encourage all types of questions and some sort of validations for them? And the most disturbing question of all: How many "Daniels" have I dismissed and discouraged from asking questions in my classroom?
Terry: It is not surprising that when principals observe teachers and point out areas of expertise and areas for improvement, we fail to revolutionize the teachers' practice. At best, a specific technique may be improved, but the principal can say little to cause teachers to see the classroom differently. The act of attending to the talk of students, however, forces teachers to make a fundamental shift in how they view the classroom. As Cazden (1988) points out, "The observations of those who make the familiar strange, by helping us see how life in classrooms is experienced by our students, can make us more reflective about our behavior as well" (p. 150). Perhaps my focus has been in the wrong place. Rather than helping teachers see their experience more clearly, perhaps I should concentrate on helping teachers see the experience of their students.
Erian: About a week later, I opened a class discussion with Daniel's question. I asked the students if they thought a flower would drink green water. Lo and behold, Daniel was not alone. In fact, the flower that I had placed in green water was starting to wilt, and it was the consensus of the class that it was dying because I had put it in green water.
What had happened here? I had followed the lesson plans. All the students had done activities concerning what a plant needs to grow. This wilting flower did not have the roots that a plant would need to continue to live. If I asked students what the purpose of the roots, stem, leaves, flower, and seed were, they were excited to share what they had learned. When I asked what a plant needs to grow, they would roll their eyes at me and share the lessons they had learned in preschool, or in their own experiences water, sun, soil. Yet, in their view, that flower in my room died because I put it in green water.
I asked how the flower would know the water was green. I got a few furrowed brows and then, "It could just tell."
"How?" I pursued. "Could it see the water?"
Some nods, a few dramatic interpretations of the flower's reaction to seeing this green water. This led to a discussion of flowers' ability to see with what? This whole idea made us chuckle, and the group dismissed it. But they were still not willing to give up on the idea that the flower would somehow know the difference.
Then a voice spoke up. "It could feel the difference." Students dismissed this idea among themselves; and at almost the same instant, a student ventured, "It could taste the difference."
For this, I was prepared with cups and green water. I invited students to investigate whether green water tastes different from clear water. We discussed how they had seen food coloring used at home. Answers were "frosting for cakes" or "cookies"; and, of course, most of them had eaten "green eggs and ham." I asked them if the food coloring changed the taste of these items. They didn't think it did. Finally, I began to pour the water into the cups. You can imagine the faces and the shrieks that came from my students. To prove I was not trying to poison anyone, I drank the first sip. A few students were eager to show their moxie and give it a try. They drank from the cups and, to compare, out of the drinking fountain.
I would like to say that it all ended happily and I proved my wonderful point and redeemed myself. I did not kill the flower by putting it in green water! But that was not to be. They all decided the green water's taste was different. Clearly, this question is not finished. It still comes up occasionally. Although I am not sure I changed a misunderstanding, I know that attending to the question and making the students' understanding explicit created an opportunity for learning that would otherwise have been missed.
I am the biggest learner in this group. I learned that children's questions are my window into their understanding, thinking, and perceptions and are much more telling than any pretest I could give. I learned that I need to be extremely thoughtful before dismissing questions as unworthy. I need to make sure that I do not let my own ignorance on a subject dictate what questions I choose not to address.
I also learned an important lesson on validation. Daniel is a quiet student who does not have a lot of self confidence. He likes to be on the outskirts of a discussion, and he does not raise his hand to share his questions or wonderings. He usually mumbles them to himself or to a neighbor. After this episode, I noticed Daniel participating in discussions, choosing to share his thoughts with us rather than dropping comments to no one in particular.
I cannot stop pondering: What criteria do I use to decide which questions to pursue? By focusing on the students' comments and questions, I pay attention to how the students understand and perceive the lesson. I can then fine tune the skill of developing strategies for quickly adapting and assimilating students' questions into the lesson resulting in more meaningful learning.

Continuing Questions

We are more convinced than ever of the importance of student questions to student learning. How can we teach children when we do not know how they understand? How can we engage students' minds if we do not know what puzzles them? We also recognize the complexity of the task. And we are concerned that all the major questions came from boys. Where are the girls' voices? What happened to their wonderings?
We find great satisfaction in working together to explore these problems. Seeing the classroom from the students' point of view has powerful implications for helping students, teachers, and principals to learn.
References

Alvermann, D.E., and D.A. Hayes. (Summer 1989). "Classroom Discussions of Content Area Reaching Assignments: An Intervention Study." Reading Research Quarterly 24, 3: 305 335.

Brophy, J. (1983). "Fostering Student Learning and Motivation in the Elementary School Classroom." In S.G. Paris, G.M. Loson, and H.W. Stevenson, eds., Learning and Motivation in the Classroom (pp. 283 304). Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cazden, C.B. (1988). Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Dillon, J.T. (1986). "Student Questions and Individual Learning." Educational Theory, 36, 4: 333 341.

Finn, J.D. (1993). School Engagement and Students At Risk. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 362 322).

Terry Beck has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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