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edu180atl: willy kjellstrom 9.8.11

I don’t know Anthony Petrosino. Yet, Anthony taught me a powerful lesson today: Asking students the right type of question is extremely important.

Anthony was what some might consider a progressive science teacher.  He pushed the envelope by incorporating hands-on, project-based lessons that were highly engaging for students.  One such project was entitled “Mission to Mars” that involved building and launching model rockets.  Students loved the project, and the local media attended many launchings.

When Anthony asked students what they learned from the experience, their responses troubled him.  A typical student reply to a question about the purpose of the project was “You know, to build [the rockets] and see how high they will go” (Barron et al., 1998, p. 274).  Absent were the types of reflections that revolved around what Anthony wanted students to know and understand: experimentation and the science of flight.  Nevertheless, many outside observers commended his efforts, in part, due to obvious student enthusiasm and eye-popping launchings.

Anthony was unsatisfied with what students learned during the first iterations of the “Mission to Mars” project.  In subsequent years, he began asking students driving questions that focused on engineering design and the scientific method.  Questions like, “Does a rocket with three wings fly higher than one with four? How can you test this?”  He found that students were not only engaged, but they also learned far more curricular content.

Anthony’s story was personally illustrative of the point that driving questions matter.  I believe that asking the “right” driving questions matter even more.  What questions are you asking?  Why?

Willy Kjellstrom (@kjellstrom) taught fifth and sixth grade at Trinity School and The Lovett School.  He is currently a PhD student at The University of Virginia.  His research focuses on the learning outcomes associated with creating physical objects from digital designs. 


Barron, B. J. S., Schwartz, D. L., Vye, N. J., Moore, A., Petrosino, A., Zech, L., & Bransford, J. D. (1998). Doing with understanding: Lessons from research on problem- and project-based learning. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 7(3/4, Learning through Problem Solving), 271-311.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice post, Willy. The right questions do matter! When students used to tell me about a frustrating conversation they had with a teacher, for example, I used to ask, “So when your teacher said that, what did you say?” A colleague suggested I change my question to, “How did you respond?” This question allows for a more a complete answer that might include physical reactions — eye-rolling, fist-clenching, walking away — instead of only what the students said back to their teacher.

    September 19, 2011

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