Learning to Ask the Right Questions

Daniel Edelson

Daniel Edelson (GMcC93) wants students to pose questions the way scientists do and use technology to explore answers, and during the past 15 years he’s developed a three-pronged approach to this goal.

The first lesson that Edelson, associate professor of learning sciences and computer science, learned when he began working in schools in 1993 was that the software he wrote would never be widely used unless it was embedded in an accessible curriculum. He also understood that teachers would not teach the curriculum unless they received professional development and follow-up help.

Edelson has carried that approach into a series of projects, including the recently published Investigations in Environmental Science: A Case-Based Approach to the Study of Environmental Systems, a yearlong inquiry-based curriculum that places high school students in the role of environmental scientists.

Students use Edelson’s award-winning software to consider issues such as energy usage, population growth and the protection of native ecosystems. After investigating these environmental problems, students make recommendations for sustainable uses of resources.

It is a complicated task.

For example, in a unit on the gopher tortoise, a species whose Florida habitat is dwindling, students must figure out how to build a new school to meet rising student enrollment while preserving the ecosystem on which the tortoise depends.

“We’re finding solutions to real environmental issues that plague the world, like water shortages,” says Nina Hike-Teague, a science teacher at Curie Metropolitan High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side who for five years has used Edelson’s Investigations in Environmental Science curriculum. Having participated in a workshop for teacher leaders, Hike-Teague mentors other Chicago Public School teachers on the curriculum.

Hike-Teague explains that her students both think more deeply due to the curriculum and gain increasing facility with the units as the year progresses.

This is precisely the point, according to Edelson, who has also done research on “scaffolding,” or how to provide people with support to learn complex tasks and then gradually remove the support the way builders construct and then remove a building scaffold. Students who do the gopher tortoise unit first, for example, generally need less support from their teachers when they tackle the water usage unit later in the year because they have more practice in asking, and then answering, open-ended questions. Edelson’s curricular design also incorporates state standards for which students will be held accountable in high-stakes tests.

According to School of Education and Social Policy Dean Penelope Peterson, this creativity and attention to multiple objectives exemplify the Learning Sciences program’s “break-the-mold” quality. Edelson continues to “employ new technologies to design innovations intended to change fundamentally the quality of learning and teaching that goes on in schools,” she says. — J.K.L.