Something mysterious happens between middle school and high school.
In Middle School:
- “What makes the sky blue?”
- “Why do we dream?”
- “Why do we blink?”
- “Why do onions make you cry?”
- “Why can’t I stay up all night?”
- “Why do I have to eat vegetables?”
In High School:
- Crickets…. tumble weed…. ahem…. more crickets…
I find that my Gr.9 Students are not very willing or adept at asking questions. There are two main reasons for this:
Reason #1: They feel too embarrassed to ask questions. They are more self-conscious about “looking stupid”.
Reason #2: They don’t know what type of questions to ask in order to help them solve a problem. Even when the problem is as simple as needing help at understanding something.
Hopefully they’ll grow out of reason #1 as they become older and more confident. There can be a whole blog post written about this, but that is not my focus today.
I want to address the second problem. Imagine having a problem in your life and needing help, but not knowing how to ask the questions you need to get you closer to a solution. This has huge consequences for learning.
Critical thinking and inquiry is founded on asking good questions. I am sad to say that these skills are not often achieved by our students. Secondly, without the ability to ask or frame questions properly, students are putting themselves at a huge disadvantage when it comes to learning. How many times have you asked your class “Does anyone have any questions?” and no one answers. We’ve all experienced that frustration, especially when you know you’ve hit a section in the material that is difficult and that there should be questions.
I often tell my students that I really appreciate it when students participate and answer questions in class, but I am even more appreciative of students who ask questions. Encouraging students to ask questions by creating a safe environment is very important, but that in and of itself is not enough. Students need to practice asking questions to get better at doing it. What is going to compel them to practice asking questions? I want to share with you this engaging and fun activity that doesn’t seem like practice at all. I call it the Mystery Box Activity.
There’s hardly any prep and it can be done at any time during any unit at any point in the class. Yes, it truly is that versatile! I have found myself doing it whenever there’s a 10-15 minute lull in the class or when I feel that the students need to take their brains out for a jog. Other than making a box (as you can see, mine is not very fancy – I took it right out of the recycling), all you need is some objects you can find right in your own classroom.
Mystery Box Instructions:
- Prepare a “Mystery Box”. I used an empty cardboard shipping box and just put the word “Mystery Box” on it. This took me less than 2 minutes to do. I simply store it in the room in some handy place for when the mood strikes me to use the Mystery Box Activity.
- Get students into groups of 3 – 5.
- Without the students seeing, place a mystery item into the box. I have never prepared much and have always used some item I find in the room. Eraser, tape dispenser, globe, thermometer, keys, remote control etc.
- Each group of students is allowed to ask a YES or NO question to help them guess what is inside the box.
- The groups keep a record of what they have learned. E.g. It’s not living, it is round, it isn’t metallic etc. I have provided a Mystery Box Activity – Worksheet you can download for students to keep records. It also has instructions on how to play the game.
- We keep cycling through the groups until a group thinks that they know what it is at which point they are allowed to guess. Each group only gets three unsuccessful tries at guessing before they are knocked out of the game. Most groups will not get to their three tries before a group successfully guesses.
I stress to the class that solving the identity of the mystery object really requires some good questions. Don’t be surprised if they don’t know what questions to ask in the beginning. They might be stumped at some point and you should give them tips to ask some better questions. Students will get better at asking questions the more you play this game.
One day I used the remote control as the mystery object. Students never guessed it. They narrowed it down to a small portable electronic item but they got really stumped beyond that. Not a cell phone, not an MP3 player, not a tablet…. That’s when I realized how old I am. These days students consume so much of their media online that I’m beginning to think that less and less students think about remote controls. Two other fun stumpers were popcorn and a the Baby Bell cheese. Both taken from my half eaten lunches. Another one was the Advil which I always carry around.
Benefits of the Mystery Box Activity:
- Students practice and learn how to ask good questions.
- The activity is easy to implement and prep.
- It can be used any time you have a 10-15 minute lull in the class or when you need to shift gears in class with an engaging activity.
- It can be used at the beginning of class to get students minds thinking and prime them to be engaged before you start your lesson.
What Questions Did You Ask Today? Video:
To further understand the importance of asking questions, watch this video.
Do you think this activity will work well in your class? As well, please share what strategies you use to promote question asking in your own classroom.