I’d like to share an idea I’ve been using in lessons called the ‘Brilliant Question Awards’. This, like all of my best ideas, was adapted (stolen) from a more experienced teacher. The idea is to encourage deep thinking and independent enquiry, which of course is vital in science but useful in just about any subject.
It’s simple: whenever a student asks a question that a) relates to the learning objectives, and b) extends the learning beyond the original content of the lesson, they get a ‘Brilliant Question Award’ card and they write their question on a space on the whiteboard. When a student has collected five cards over the course of a school year, they can trade them in for a prize (science-related of course). Prizes have included stationery from the Science Museum, cheap books about the periodic table, self-heating hand-warmers, and sachets of hydrophobic sand (also from the Science Museum).
I’ve been using this reward system for a couple of terms and I’ve been really pleased with the results. I’ve noticed a change in the atmosphere in lessons: students are less afraid of asking ‘stupid’ questions. This has been particularly helpful for my lower-set classes, where even the least confident of students are rewarded for taking part in class discussions. For my higher-set classes these cards become the focus for competition: some students use almost every class discussion as an opportunity to ask a Brilliant Question in order to win more cards than their peers.
I think these cards are effective because formulating a question requires a lot of higher-order thinking skills, especially with the requirements that the ‘Brilliant Question Award’ imposes. Students have to consider what they already know and what they don’t know, and often how to relate this to everyday or novel situations.
It also means that over the course of a week or two, the whiteboard gets filled with deep questions relating to the topics we’re covering in lessons.
Some of my favourites of the ones you can see above are ‘Why can’t our bodies fight against cancer?’ (in a topic about microbes and disease), ‘Why does fire stay up when you put it upside-down?’ (in a topic about heat transfer), and ‘When you freeze a liquid it turns solid but when you heat pancake mixture which is liquid, why does it turn solid?’.
What I haven’t discussed is how I respond to the questions. I’m still working on this aspect of the Brilliant Question Awards. Originally I decided I wouldn’t answer the questions myself, but allow other students to try to answer them. This had some good results that encouraged lots of students to get involved with trying to explain answers, but it also left many questions unanswered. I’ve moved on to saying ‘I want YOU to give me the answer when we’ve covered a little bit more of this topic, the idea being that students will look out for information that helps them to answer their own question. This hasn’t worked as well as I’d hoped because, again, so few of the questions end up with an answer.
I’ve really enjoyed using the Brilliant Question Awards and I’m happy to share the idea. I’m still tweaking the system and I’d be glad for any advice and feedback!
If you want to try it yourself, you can make decent looking personalised cards at Vistaprint.com, which I used because their business card templates worked nicely and the first order you make is free except for postage. There are tons of places to find prizes too, but keeping it cheap is a challenge – any suggestions would be welcome.