Asking the Right Question

Mary Beth Hertz is a certified Instructional Technology Specialist and K-7 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA. She has presented at a number of conferences and is a blogger and avid user of social media. She is also a co-organizer of Edcamp Philly and sits on the Edcamp Foundation Board. She was also named an ISTE Emerging Leader in 2010. She is passionate about making school meaningful and about all things edtech.


This school year I spent a lot of time thinking through and breaking down the research process so I could begin to build a successful unit for my students. Since we have no library and no librarian, it is up to me to teach research skills in my computer lab. This is a daunting task, to say the least, especially since the most I see my students is for 90 minutes a week (two 45 minute periods). I believe, however, that I have successfully chunked the unit so that, by the end, my students will have enough of a foundation to successfully find information they are looking for.

I start my unit with activities and conversation around keywords and search terms. This is true for all grades from 3rd through 7th. If my students don’t understand the importance of word choice when doing an Internet search, then sending them off on their own will be a waste. What I didn’t expect along the way was the struggle they had coming up with good questions.

What is a good question?

A good question uses specific words. It asks for specific details. It delineates between fact and fiction. It is narrow enough to keep the search focused.

Sounds easy enough, right?

Now imagine that you are 10 years old.

Not so easy now, is it?

For example, one of my 4th grade students asked, “How many colors are in the world?” You can imagine her frustration in trying to find an answer. She tried changing her search terms, but she still could not find an answer. After a conversation about why her question was a difficult one (it is too broad and too general), and after some discussion about other ways to ask the question while also trying to figure out exactly what she wanted to know and why, she changed her question completely to “How big are baby pigs?” Within minutes she had an answer. While not the deepest question in the world, she has learned three things from the experience. 1) It’s OK if you can’t find your answer right away 2) the words we choose to search with are very important 3) sometimes you need to ask a different question. From the experience she had with her colors question, she was easily able to consider her word choices for her new question and create a successful search term in minutes (“baby pigs size”).

Something to take into account as well when teaching research is how important it is that students’ vocabularies include synonyms and that they are able to think about relationships between words. For instance, in the example above, the girl tried “how big baby pigs,” but we also discussed what word means the same thing as “how big.” She settled on “baby pig size.” It is also important that they understand how to ask a focused question and avoid asking two questions in one.

I didn’t realize before starting my newly designed unit how long it might take for my students to really understand the process of asking a good question and then selecting the best words to create a successful search term. While this part of the unit has taken a lot longer than projected, I’m glad that we are really working deeply with these concepts. If my students haven’t mastered the art of crafting a good research question and search term, then moving on to other parts of the unit is a waste of time.

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