Stop Questioning Students Before Teaching Them

I have a real issue with the way science is typically taught. I think it single-handedly makes science seem like something that is incomprehensible. It is this: asking students to answer a question before any information has been given.

Asking Them to Form a Hypothesis

Here is the most obvious and widespread way this is implemented: asking students to guess what might happen in a science experiment before doing the experiment. Teachers dutifully do this for every experiment and explain that this shows them how a “hypothesis” works.

Except it isn’t. This is not how a hypothesis works. A hypothesis develops because someone first notices some causal relationship. A dental hygienist said to me once that she noticed people with a certain set of factors tended to have more plaque on their teeth. She said, “That’s just my experience .. it’s not … it’s not … it might not be true … ” I said, “It’s your hypothesis!” It may not be entirely proven yet, but it’s a very valuable observation, based on her extensive experience working, which may lead someone to discover a new, useful truth.

The scientific method starts with observation. Then after this, the hypothesis is formed, which is an educated guess. The scientific method brings precision to common sense. When you ask a child to make a guess about what is going to happen next, you are asking them to make an uneducated guess.

Here is an example from Janice VanCleave  in an article “The Industrial Age” in Practical Homeschooling magazine. After describing to boil water in a pot with a lid, she says:

Before setting up this demonstration, ask, “Do you think the lid will rise and float above the pot?” Tell the kids that when scientists experiment they call their guess about what will happen a hypothesis.”

A child may or may not have any experience with a pot of water boiling–or the many, many other scientific experiments ideally one does with a child–to make an educated guess. One may as well wrapped a present and asked them, “What is in this box?”

When I see this in action, the actual implementation of it, after the teacher asks the student to develop a hypothesis, and the student has no idea, the teacher often becomes badgering, “You need to guess! Say something!” It’s as if they expect the child should have been born with knowledge–or should have even a half inkling about something that took men literally centuries to figure out.

Further, you have just distracted them. In their minds, they may start to think whimsical things. They might think the lid will BLAST OFF and GO INTO THE AIR and then SPIN AROUND and then BANG OFF THE CEILING!!!! When you do the experiment, and barely anything happens except the most subtle rumbling of the lid, it is likely to disappoint.


If they do make a guess, the result of the experiment will now create some undesirable emotion in the child. I watched a YouTube video of this once. The teacher asked some students, played by puppets, about what their guess was on if objects would sink or float. When a student guessed right, the student bragged and boasted about how smart they were. When they guessed wrong, they acted sad and needed to be consoled. Expectations, developed randomly, are raised for the child, then elevated or crushed in front of them. This shouldn’t be the emotion created. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong–and still exciting. Curiosity should still be maintained. If it’s right–Eureka! Let’s all rejoice!

The “Mystery” Approach

This is another approach that also asks the question–and expects the student to have the answer–before adequate teaching. This is from Dr. Bernard Nebel’s educational tome, Building the Foundation for Scientific Understanding. This question is meant for children in Kindergarten through Second grade. Tell me, can you answer this question?

Pose the question: If all matter is made up of particles, what makes the difference between a substance being a solid, liquid, or a gas? Let kids ponder this for a time and offer suggestions. Discuss and analyze their suggestions in terms of: Would that explain all observations? You will probably have to emphasize more than once that explanations cannot alter the basic idea that solids, liquids, and gases are all made up of particles. If students don’t come up with it themselves, and it is rare that they will …

Do you know the answer to this? Is sitting around trying to think “logically” going to help you come up with the answer? Here is the answer if you are hungry for it:

You will have to explain that the fundamental particles of every substance are in constant motion, jiggling and moving about so far as they can. This is true even in solids; it is only that the attraction between particles holds them in place despite their jiggling and makes their mass a solid.

Note he himself says “it is rare” that any child will have an answer.  And in the explanation he writes, “You will have to explain.” Because there is no fighting chance that a person, without many scientific tools to help them, will come up with the answer that “particles of every substance are in constant motion.” The intellectual energy that could have been thinking about knowledge and how to use it in daily life creatively is wasted spinning your wheels. It is an unnecessary intellectual burden.

I learned many things from Dr. Nebel’s tome. But I am very much opposed to the approach. He writes correctly that after years and years of receiving information and doing prescribed experiments, students in current traditional schools do not develop any mastery of the topics they are learning, and don’t do so until if and when they are in graduate school. Not only do they not remember the conclusions from the experiments they do–they don’t even remember doing the experiment! He is correct in the assessment of the problem but his approach is a “mystery” approach in which a question is first asked, the students ponder it, and then the teacher “guides them to reason” about the right answer, poses problems.

Here is another example with a more graspable topic for children. This is also from BFSU. You ask the students, “What defines something as an animal?” And children undoubtedly say something like “They have a face” or “They have eyes.” And to each of these, the instructor says, “No! Wrong! Not all animals have a face. What about ants, spiders, etc.”

In a way, this sets the child up to fail. They are sitting in a room, without any animals in front of them, trying to think through this problem. And then the teacher finally says, “All animals have a mouth because all animals need energy.” The student is constantly dependent on the instructor for the final answer.

A Better, More Epistemologically Correct Approach

A better approach must be in alignment with epistemologically sound principles of how humans learn. I base much of my teaching on the book An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology by Ayn Rand and the work of Maria Montessori. I am not writing in the name of either woman. However, I was influenced by their work.

Ayn Rand writes that the base of all knowledge is sensory data. The human mind then categorizes it in ways useful for humans. She writes about the “conceptual common denominator” that defines a concept and is encapsulated by a word. Reality is real. Knowledge is our way of understanding it, suiting it to fit our intellectual and practical needs.

Montessori focuses on a sensory education in the early years. Many of her activities in fact isolate a “conceptually common denominator,” such as size as a child builds a tower of pink cubes which are all the same except in size.

Science must begin with the study of individual objects, the base of what is being studied. I will use animals as the example. If I were to draw conclusions about animals, how can I do that without having been exposed to a wide variety of animals? Do all animals have eyes? Do they all have a backbone? Do they all have a face? I at first didn’t know which animals technically have eyes. Does an ant? Does a spider? Does a worm? My children have no hope of knowing if I don’t know. And so the first activity must individual studies of ants, spiders, worms, sea life, etc. Thankfully, the weird whackiness and creepy crawliness of animals completely fascinates elementary aged children. Books are a great way to do this. I like the series from National Geographic and from Scholastic for lessons on animals. As you read them, ask children simple questions about what you just read. Does a worm have eyes? A mouth? Ask these questions immediately upon reading such that they have a fighting chance of answering correctly and so the information is better retained.

The next activity, which is very common in Montessori schools, is a sorting activity. We love sorting activities here. My children, even as young as 3, love to do this. It makes them feel smart as they put pictures in the right category. I label the category clearly with a word so they can see clearly what the word/idea means. If we sort by who has a backbone, and they see a group of animals clustered by who has a backbone and who does not, they clearly see what “Vertebrate” means. Here’s the word, here are some examples, here’s the one defining characteristic among all of them. This highlights eloquently the conceptually common denominator.

I am currently putting together a logical hierarchy for the science lessons, with the first base of this to be the study of individual objects as the base of the hierarchy. I am taking the lessons I found from many different places, including my own, and putting them into a better form of presentation. The first will be on animals. The very first question for the curriculum on animals, and I got this from Dr. Nebel, is “What is living and not living?” Dr. Nebel actually first starts off with “What is living, what is natural, and what is man-made?” I’ll leave the technology part for a different curriculum. You would have pictures of different items for the child to sort into categories. (You could also do this in the car while passing by objects.) After asking living versus non-living, you break it further, again with options to sort, “Which ones are plants and which ones are animals?” Then break it further, again with pictures to sort, “which ones have eyes?” and “which ones have a nose?” and “which ones have a mouth?” After doing several sorting activities, you can conclude, “Oh, all animals have a mouth.” But it is only after doing this activity, in which they had the power to see for themselves, do you draw this conclusion. Check out my tag “Elementary Education” for the curriculum that I have put together (and keep coming back as more will be added!).

The other thing you will see my focus on is heavy comparison and contrast in all science experiments. I try to do two of something at all times to show the difference in outcomes. For instance, I love Dr. Nebel’s idea to try to plant seeds in sand, well drained soil, and water logged soil. It gives the child a better sense of what soil is ideal for germination and which ones are “too dry” and “too wet.” I call this “The Three Little Bears Principle.”

I also do ask simple questions of them after learning a lesson. This is vital for learning. They must be asked to recall the information. It should be the easiest question possible. “Which leaf produced bubbles when submerged in water: the one in the sun or the one in the shade?” This should be asked when it’s fresh on their brain. Please always only ask children questions they have a fighting chance of actually answering. And if you see they don’t, please change the approach and please don’t write to have others ask children questions that you have personally observed they are unlikely to answer. It is commonly written in many educational books that teachers and parents ask way too many questions of their children. This stuff is contagious. People see others do it and it is easy to mimic. This is one of the reasons I rebelled so hard from reading BFSU, because I found it caused me to start asking questions of my children as a form of teaching and discussion and I didn’t like it at all.

After you have explained concepts in a crystal clear way to children, then turn it over to them. In all science lessons, I try to give my children an open end activity to practice what they just learned. When I taught properties of material, for instance, I simply gave my children bins of objects of plastic, wood, and metal, and some tools to investigate the objects, with no direct purpose of what to do. I in fact tried to get my son to fill in a data sheet about the material–this idea failed miserably. They are interested and curious about what was learned, with an opportunity to play. They may become interested in subtly. I continue to expand my understanding and options of how to do this. I hope to turn it into self-directed projects as they get older.

Dr. Nebel writes, correctly, that students who do science experiments don’t even remember doing the experiment. I contend that is because the experiments are designed only to teach a concept. And they put all of the effort of set up on the student. The student is more preoccupied with setting up the experiment than on learning the lesson. I always set up the experiment for my children and I let them do nothing but observe. I have a suggestion though. My children are young so I haven’t had a chance to test it out. But, instead of doing experiments where children set up the experiment to learn a concept, what if they were to do an activity where they solve a problem. Instead of having them set up several lessons on plant growth, perhaps give the challenge to grow X plant. It gives them a purpose.

This open-end activity, whatever it is, guided but not controlled by adults, is where children’s intellectual and creative efforts should be. This time is incalculably valuable. It puts them in the driver’s seat. Doing something with the information, after at least some information has been taught, is the best teacher.  And the lessons they learn from this is not something any of us have any control over. Where their mind takes them is but anyone’s guess–but it’s always incredible. We need to trust the integrating power of our children’s mind and the inner drive they have to learn. Let them amaze you. You need to trust them. There needs to be a leap of faith there.


Basically one of the biggest problems I have with education as done now is how much children are tested in an evaluative way. It’s constant for them. They are constantly being judged, tested, and evaluated. What if, instead of testing them for evaluative purposes, they were simply tested for assessment purposes? And it doesn’t have to be a “test.” They could perhaps keep a journal or something which tells the teacher, “Ok, you are struggling in this area. Lets make a different approach to guide you.” And to quiz the child before the lesson is really problematic and highly indicative of why school is so harsh for so many children, who are expected to do too much with too little.

Before questioning them: teach them!


7 thoughts on “Stop Questioning Students Before Teaching Them

  1. Ilene Skeen says:

    I love this article and this approach. Observation is the key — you are right, of course. Just getting kids into the habit of observation is a good thing — even without any questions at all. Observation seems to me to be the key to genius.

    There is a story about Tchaikovsky early in his musical training. His teacher played a simple theme on the piano and asked the students (who were mostly young teenagers), to construct some variations on that theme for homework. Most of the boys did 3 or 5. One did 8, and another 12. Tchaikovsky came to class with 117 variations of that theme.

    Children could observe in teams or alone: list everything you can about this plant, bug, fruit, stick, ruler, pencil, shoe, or whatever you want them to learn about. Whatever it is, the experience of observing and then asking questions based on observation is the scientific method. The kids do the observation and they should be the ones asking the questions, not the teacher.

    The teacher would guide them on what questions they could answer and how they could answer it. Some of the questions they would ask may be too advanced for them to answer, but others not. By observation, the teacher would emphasize the overall entity, every part, every characteristic and attribute of every part. Also alive, dead, weight, color, etc., etc., etc. Observation is not only sight, but smell, touch, taste (when appropriate), and sound. In fact, the categories of observation themselves are a great lesson for budding scientists to understand.

    With children just learning to read, perhaps they just tell you what they see, hear, smell, etc. and you write it down. The object doesn’t have to be something they know anything about. In fact, it might be better if it is unknown to most of them. I bet you’d be surprised at how much they come up with, how they enjoy giving you more things to write down and how happy they will be to read them back to you. For the raw observation, every factual observation is valid, no matter what the order. Later you can help them learn about categories, essentials, definitions, etc.

    1. Amber says:

      Thank you for this comment! I could not agree more. I love how you say “they should be asking the questions.” This will affect how I teach! I presented some lessons to my daughter and she started asking about everything, “Does this have a backbone!” That is very interesting about Tchaikovksy: that simple lesson allowed all around to see that he had genius. It awakened something in him. I find over and over again that a simple straight forward lesson awakens something in my children and they start to see more, categorize more, and learn more! Thank you for your feedback; I hope you come back for the Elementary Science program I am putting together.

      1. Ilene Skeen says:

        I am thrilled that you liked my comment and I’m very interested in your Elementary Science program. Please keep me posted.

        BTW, I am awed that you are getting your inspiration for teaching your children from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. ITOE is the most important book ever written, in my opinion. I’ve read and re-read it many times. It is wonderful that you are using it as a guide for teaching your kids. Totally cool.

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