I am currently helping a year 6 teacher to work with FOSIL throughout this school year and she has chosen to use it within an RE topic in the spring term about inspirational leaders. However rather than trying to teach all the skills they will need to do this well she wants to do a short topic – 5 weeks this term using forest fires. This would mean that she could use the later RE topic to see what they remember about the process and to guide them further.
However, I could really do with some help in forming a good research question.
I was thinking – Are all forest fires a natural disaster? Or Can a forest fire ever be good for the environment? Which would make them have to look at how they start and why.
Hi Elizabeth. That’s really exciting – FOSIL works so well when you build skills from one unit to the next in this way. Of your two questions I prefer “Are all forest fires a natural disaster?” because it has so much more scope for exploration and therefore a richer Wonder stage. It contains the “Can a forest fire ever be good for the environment?” question, so if this is an angle the teacher is particularly keen to pursue then she can guide it in that direction, but (off the top of my head) it immediately also raises questions such as:
What is a natural disaster? How do the effects of a forest fire compare to those of other natural disasters?
What is disastrous about a forest fire? How does it affect people, plants, animals and the whole ecosystem? Long term and short term consequences? Local, national and global consequences (environmental? economic?)?
Are all forest fires ‘natural’, or do people sometimes set fire to forests either by accident or on purpose? If on purpose, does it have the effects they intend?
Can forest fires ever have beneficial effects? Beneficial for who?
Obviously the class won’t end up investigating all these areas, but the point of a really good question is that it should have more angles than you can possibly cover in one inquiry!
We would love to hear how the planning for this unit progresses. Please do keep us updated.
I am doing something similar with grade 3 (year 4). They are going to be doing research on climate change. They started in class with the teachers working on questions. What makes an open ended question, what isn’t open ended. They next had a session in which the following took place:
as a whole group they discussed what they already knew (or thought they knew) about climate change
They then divided into groups of 5 and worked on developing their own questions. They were encouraged to develop open ended questions but we knew that there would be some (or many) which weren’t. They recorded their questions on a large piece of paper. As they worked they received encouragement and some feedback from the teachers.
After 10-15 minutes students were asked to choose one question from their group of questions to present to the class and then did so.
This activity was about 30 minutes at which point we stopped.
In the next session, students will do the following:
Reform their groups of 5, cut out the questions they wrote and put them under one of the 4 categories: questions that are the hardest to answer; questions that are not important or relevant to the topic; questions that are easy to answer; and finally questions most commonly asked. I wonder about the last category and since we haven’t done the activity yet we may remove it.
Having categorized the questions, (and receiving feedback from us) each group will decide on the best research question from their”questions hardest to answer”.
If any group would like to proceed with a question which is from the category “easy to answer”, we will assist them in reworking it.
At the end of the session, students will have a research question to start their investigation.
Admittedly students will not necessarily have developed the questions we might have wanted them to explore. However, they will be invested in what interests them on the topic. This project is very fluid at the moment since I have never worked with this age group, being a secondary teacher-librarian, and the teachers have never worked on developing research skills with this age group. For example, I can see us assisting students as they start their research to rework their questions as they learn more about the topic.
This unit will also introduce students to information literacy skills such as note taking. Our art teacher will be developing sketchnoting with the classes and the teachers will be working on identifying key information in texts so that students are able to start to summarize rather than to write full sentences in their notes.
Thanks for your suggestions Merrilibraria. These lessons sound really interesting. It is great that you have given so much time to think about the question. It is important that we do focus on this as without it the research goes nowhere.
When I worked with a teacher last year I did find that notetaking was a problem for many of our students. It was something highlighted to work on this year.
I do like your approach, Merrilibrarian, brainstorming possible questions and then categorising the questions.
Possibly not suitable for grades 3 and 4 but probably suitable for your colleague’s grade 6s, Elizabeth, is to get the students sub-categorising the hardest questions, what makes them hard to answer? Thoughts that come immediately to mind are
> the information (data?) needed to answer these questions is difficult to find
> there is too much information available (suggesting that the question is too broad) so refinement or narrowing of the question is needed
> there are different points-of-view and/or conflicting information.
All could lead to healthy discussions:
> is the necessary information really impossible to find or is it a matter of search and find skills, knowing where to look, how to frame the search terms etc etc (might teacher or librarian might be able to find it?)
> how then to narrow or refine the question?
> how to frame the answer/s? are they all equally valid? do all viewpoints need to be discussed? does the question need reframing?
I’m also wondering, Merrilibrarian, if you (will) have situations where some of those easy questions turn out to be harder than they first appeared.
Beginning to get an appreciation of the messiness of research – and that this is normal?
Thanks, John! Your comments are really useful. Thinking of good research questions is tricky as an adult so teaching it is hard too. As teachers and librarians, I think we find it difficult to let go and allow our children to do this themselves for fear of the questions not being ‘good’ enough. However, I think that once you allow children to start thinking of their own, with guidance, they probably come up with better questions themselves. This will because they are being given the freedom to learn what interests them rather than what we think they should be finding out.
I would love to see some examples of questions from children if anyone is willing to share.