Why questions? Investigating the social basis of questioning for learning

Project Details


Asking questions is a common way that families and teachers support children's learning, and different types of questions influence children's exploration and understanding. Yet we still know little about the role of questioning in STEM learning. This project investigates how and why certain types of questions may be better at fostering learning. In particular, in contrast to questions asked by a person seeking to learn something new (information-seeking questions), children may learn better from questions asked by someone who clearly knows the answer and intends to teach (pedagogical questions). This project bridges what we know about the development of children's thinking with research on how specific types of questions work to support young children's learning of science. To learn more about this, it examines the role of two types of questions across a range of scientific methods including experiments in laboratory settings, observation of children's conversations with parents and teachers in museums and classrooms, and interventions to test how types of questions work in the everyday activity of storybook reading. In addition to their importance for families, project findings will be valuable to preschool and elementary teachers and to educators who work in informal science settings such as science museums, zoos, and play centers. The project is supported by the EHR Core Research (ECR) program, which funds basic research that seeks to understand, build theory to explain, and suggest interventions (and innovations) to address persistent challenges in STEM interest, education, learning, and participation.

The project builds upon a long tradition of educational and developmental research on children's learning from questions in formal and informal STEM learning environments. Taking a new perspective, the project takes into account the relations among questions, the questioner, and learning goals. Specifically, it proposes that questions from knowledgeable others who intend to teach (i.e., pedagogical questions) may facilitate learning by eliciting children's inferences about the importance of the scientific subject being questioned, and by encouraging their further exploration and discovery learning. These assumptions will be tested across five empirical studies, each with its own specific aim. Aim 1 is to identify pedagogical questions and their effects on children's learning and exploration of scientific information in a controlled laboratory environment. Aim 2 seeks to characterize the use of pedagogical questions in math, physics, and biology classrooms using archival videos and transcripts from the ClassBank database, and explores the relation of pedagogical questions to student engagement. Aim 3 is to characterize the use of pedagogical questions in naturalistic parent-child conversations documented in the CHILDES (Child Language Data Exchange System) database, and explore the influence of socio-cultural factors on parents' tendencies to ask different types of questions. These factors include family socioeconomic status, presence of mothers and fathers, children's age, historical trend, and others. Aim 4 tests how natural variation in parents' use of pedagogical questions relates to children's learning and exploration in a science museum. Aim 5 tests an intervention that prompts parents to ask pedagogical questions during storybook sharing and examines how this intervention relates to children's learning of scientific knowledge. Across these five studies pedagogical questions are expected to have a facilitative role for children's learning and exploration, while socio-cultural factors are expected to influence how pedagogical questions are asked by parents and interpreted by children. Taken as a whole, this project has potential to deliver empirical evidence and a more comprehensive theory about when and why questions lead to learning. This research is important to society because it can lead to evidence-based recommendations about how to effectively use questions to enhance STEM teaching and children's learning.

Effective start/end date7/1/176/30/21


  • National Science Foundation: $517,834.00


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