In which I experience the power of the right questionpublished Apr 8, 2017
I am working on a project to research the kinds of questions that students ask when viewing geoscience data visualizations. Earth and Mind readers have seen a snippet of this work here. In justifying this work, we talk about how asking questions is an essential practice of science, how learning to ask questions is a necessary step towards becoming a curiosity-driven self-educator and life-long learner, and how seeking answers to self-generated questions is more powerfully engaging than seeking answers to questions provided by a book or teacher.
I really believe all this about the power of asking questions. I know all this, from both experience and theory. And yet earlier this year, I was astonished to observe the power that the right question had to compel and drive my own curiosity on a topic that had previously found distinctly un-interesting.
I asked our neighbor, who is an amateur local historian when he's not being an MIT engineering professor. Dave said that another neighbor had once pointed out a pit in the ground back in the woods and said that it was an old copper mine. This really grabbed my attention. We live near Concord (as in the battle of Lexington and Concord of Revolutionary War fame) and the landscape is littered with old stone walls and foundations of colonial vintage. But a copper mine? My last (and only) economic geology course was in 1970, but my fuzzy mental map of copper localities placed them in the Cordillera and other mountain ranges. Was it at all plausible that there could actually be a copper mine out behind our house? Why would it be there?
This question grabbed ahold of my mind and wouldn't let go. I spent a long evening with my laptop and the Internet, in front of the fire, chasing answers. I found my way to a website for prospectors, Diggings.com, which told me that there were two known deposits of copper in Middlesex County. Neither was my "Copper Shop," but they were nearby, in the adjacent town of Carlisle. I went back to that previously boring geologic map and learned that we sit on the Nashoba Terrane, a lozenge-shaped, fault-bounded sliver. The first source I looked at said that its origin was "enigmatic," but a more recent source, said it was a Paleozoic arc/back-arc complex. This was promising; here was a tectonic setting that could have supported hydrothermal fluids capable of forming an ore. Our house sits on the Nashoba Formation, which is gneiss and schist metamorphosed from volcanogenic sediments interlayered with limey marine sediments.
So why was this particular question so powerful for me? What did it keep me up past my bedtime wandering through parts of the web I would previously not have found interesting, driving me in search of an answer?
I have two thoughts on this.
First, this was a instance of "place-based learning," in which the content concerned a geographic locale of interest to the learner. The efficacy of place-based learning in engaging learners is well documented. If so, this was an extreme case of the place-based engagement phenomena. I was notably non-interested when the spatial connection to myself was on the scale of 10-100 miles. I only got interested when the phenomenon under consideration was about 200 yards from my house.
My second thought emerges from the student-generated-question project, during which we have developed a taxonomy of student question types. One of our broad categories is "Causality." Within "Causality" fall questions about why is the Earth the way it is, the way the data show? One type of "Causality" question is "Why doesn't the data match my mental model?" My copper-mine question falls in this category. My mental map of copper localities did not include any in flat, tranquil, glaciated Massachusetts. The "copper shop" dot and report of an old copper mine out behind our neighbors' house violated my mental model. The discrepancy between the expected and the observed made for a powerful question, a question that lured me into an extended bout of curiosity-driven self-education. As we work on our taxonomy of student-generated question types, I'm inclined to elevate "why doesn't Earth match my mental model?" to the top of generative questions, questions that can launch a fertile inquiry.
- 1856 Map of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, by Henry Francis Walling, publisher: Smith & Bumstead. Original is 146 x 147 cm. interactive online version at http://www.leventhalmap.org/id/12690.
- USGS State Geologic maps interactive compilation.
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