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The Questioning Project

Two pair of Western Gulls interacting.
The Research
The Activity
Notes on Observing Birds
Primer on Behavior
About Making Questions

This is the home of The Questioning Project (TQP), a web delivered activity that combines art education skills with field zoology experience to develop creative observation skills. The purpose of this web page is to explain TQP for the participants, the background of the research, and provide guides on getting the activity accomplished.

The sections Research, Observing Birds, Making Questions, and Behavior are available to answer any questions about doing the activity , which is designed to function on its own.

The Questioning Project is a three-week activity designed to develop the skill of creative observation. Creative observation uses the process of asking questions to better utilize the art of observation. Participants are asked to create two sets of questions in response to observations of birds. The first step is to develop a set of questions to a self-selected bird photo, and the second step is to develop a set of questions to an observation of live birds. Throughout the activity, participants record the questions they develop, reflect on the process, and respond to questions in a newsgroup.

This web page introduces the pedagogy behind the activity, discusses the activity, and concludes with advice on how to create questions and set up the observation. A partial bibliography for the project is included at the end. This project is written primarily for adult participants but it is anticipated that a customized activity would be effective for K-12 students. For some students in grades 5 and above, the activity could start them on a science fair project. The goal of the site, however, is not necessarily to create scientifically significant questions, but rather to encourage a level of participation that allows for creative observation.

The Research

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When imagination is utilized to respond verbally to a visual experience the response is a product of creative observation. For this activity the response will be in the form of questions. Through the study of everyday birds, observation is used as a method to explore inquiry. It does this by encouraging an internal dialog prompted by the development of a series of questions initiated by the observer.

The biologist and author, Ernst Mayr was once asked what was the most important skill that high-school students could be taught and he replied, to learn how to observe well. Observing is different from seeing. Seeing is an action similar to how we watch television. You receive images that come to you and generally little critical thought is involved or needed. Observing requires a level of commitment from the observer.

Watching versus observing

Baby-sitters watch children; developmental psychologists observe them. Watching is a casual endeavor; observing is a rigorous process. Ethologists enjoy both watching and observing animals. They receive pure enjoyment from watching animals, and while watching they may develop interest in a particular species, behaviors and questions; but obtaining answers to those questions requires careful observations. I recently watched a goshawk glide from it's perch in an aspen tree and snatch a red squirrel off a log using the talons of its left foot. It was a chance occurrence which was exciting to watch and raised some questions, such as: Do goshawks usually employ only one set of talons when capturing red squirrels? If so, are individual goshawks primarily left-footed or right-footed? Answers to initial questions, such as these, usually lead to additional questions.

Philip N. Lehner, Handbook of ethological methods

Observing is similar to the type of discipline used when studying a work of art. But studying a piece of art is different from seeing a piece of art while on a tour of an art museum. Observing art requires involvement from the observer.

The eye and the visual apparatus may be intact; the object may be physically there, the cathedral of Notre Dame, or Rembrandt's portrait of Hendrik Stoeffel. In some bald sense, the latter may be "seen." They may be looked at, possibly recognized, and have correct names attached. But for the lack of continuous interaction between the total organism and the objects, they are not perceived, certainly not esthetically. A crowd of visitors steered through a picture-gallery by a guide, with attention called here and there to some high point, does not perceive; only by accident is there even interest in seeing a picture for the sake of subject matter vividly realized.

For to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience.

Art as Experience, John Dewey

Mary Ann Stankiewicz in her introduction to David Perkin's The Intelligent Eye, says, "Works of art do not reveal all their secrets at first glance..." The animal behaviorist Sir Peter Medawar explains "These behavior structures do not declare themselves in any obvious way. Their identification depends upon an imaginative conjecture of the part of the observer which further observation may or may not uphold." For our purposes, imaginative conjecture can happen in the form of a question.

An imaginative conjecture is a product of the imagination. Imagination is the key word. This is a part of science that requires creativity in order to develop the science. While the scientific method is important for conducting scientific investigations, determining how the scientific method will be applied, requires the imagination of the scientists.

The imagination can begin with the creation of questions developed by the observer. These are not questions that come from an outside source to the observer. These are questions that originate with the observer. As Philip Lehner indicated above, the beginning of an exploration begins with experienced-based questions which bring about other questions.

There is a distinction that must be drawn between a science environment that incorporates child-centered, hands-on methodology, but considers primarily the teacher's questions, and a classroom in which knowledge about science and the world is carefully co-constructed, incorporating a child-centered, hands-on methodology that is framed by children's questions.

Talking Their Way Into Science pg. 9, Karen Gallas

Niko Tinbergen used the phrase 'watching and wondering' to describe a process of watching, and thinking about what you are watching. Watching and wondering is a process of thinking through what is initially seen to start accessing the information that is available. It is this thinking process that turns simple watching into observation that can produce creative results.

The study of birds encourages observation. Birds are abundant and many live their lives where we can watch their daily activities. Birdwatching becomes more than just creating a list of the birds seen; it becomes an introduction to the discipline of observation.

We have found that looking closely is no simple matter, though science textbooks and curricular guidelines may portray it otherwise. It is often deemed a "lower level skill" that requires little analysis or reflection. However, we have found such thinking to be misguided. Our work has shown us that looking closely is grounded in an ongoing sense of wonder about what is occurring in the natural world, such as how the birds communicate, and why do the same birds travel in groups. Looking closely involves realizing the limits of one's vision, such as the children knowing that what they were seeing outside the window was only part of the story. Looking closely means acknowledging what is not seen, such as the kind of birds that did not appear at the feeder, and considering that data as also valuable. Looking closely involves grappling with the problems of scientists, such as devising a strategy for watching the birds when everything happens so quickly. Lastly, looking closely is an activity for making personal connections, such as William's describing a bluebird that guards its home like a soldier. Looking closely is not a skill that we outgrow but one that all learners continually refine as they gain new experiences in varied contexts.

Inquiry at the Window, Phyllis and David Whitin

Niko Tinbergen, when he accepted the Nobel Prize for his work, stressed the importance of observation to science. 

First of all they stress the importance for medical science of open-minded observation - of 'watching and wondering'. This basic scientific method is still too often looked down on by those blinded by the glamour of apparatus, by the prestige of 'tests' and by the temptation to turn to drugs. But it is by using this old method of observation that both autism and general mis-use of the body can be seen in a new light: to a much larger extent than is now realised both could very well be due to modern stressful conditions.

I therefore appeal to our medical colleagues to recognise that the study of animals - in particular 'plain' observation - can make useful contributions to human biology not only in the field of somatic malfunctioning, but also in that of behavioural disturbances, and ultimately help us understand what psychosocial stress is doing to us.

Niko Tinbergen, Ethology and Stress Diseases

The Research
The Activity
Notes on Observing Birds
Primer on Behavior
About Making Questions

The objective of this research is to provide an opportunity for participants to combine their creative abilities with their observation skills. This is done through a creative response to birds. You will be asked to find local birds that you can watch and about which you can create a series of questions.

What can you discover by asking questions? Where does the process of developing questions lead to? How much science can we find from everyday objects? 

The goal is to experience the process of approaching a new subject through the use of questions. In the first week you will create questions from a photo collection. During the second week you will set up a series of questions around a live situation. On the third week you will summarize the process of the first two weeks with thoughts about "Questionography".

The activity is designed to be as unstructured as possible. Defining what the questions should look like could exclude various types of questions.

There are several goals associated with this activity:

A working assumption of this project is that when students are asked to create an original question from a visual situation, they are brought into a creative opportunity, and when education becomes creative it has the opportunity of being transformative.

The Research
The Activity
Notes on Observing Birds
Primer on Behavior
About Making Questions

The Activity

Week One

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Before the Activity

Select a photo from the website. There are over 400 species featured at this site. Create some questions around the picture. What are some questions that would lead to research? What are questions that would lead to greater interest? What question would promote creativity? Experiment with the process of creating questions. It is not necessary to become a scientist. Perhaps instead of leading towards a science investigation, the questions will lead to a short story. I have always felt that each picture has a story behind it. Finding the story is similar to finding the story in a work of art.

Talk about the process that occurred during the process of creating the questions. I am interested in your experience of creating the questions. Here are some questions to consider:


Week Two

Select an opportunity for an observation of a living bird. Pick a bird or group of birds that are fairly easy to observe. Create a series of questions. For most people this challenge is a unique situation. No, you don't need to know what the species of bird is, but a quick description of it would help or digital pictures.

Week Three

Report on what the process of creating the questions revealed. What did you learn? How did the question process work for you? Is this a legitimate process to use with students?

Some of the questions to think about as you sum up the activity:

  1. Did your questions create other questions? Was this a generative process?
  2. Did you find yourself trying to find "the right question"? Did that stymie your efforts?
  3. In what ways did you become more aware of birds?
  4. How would you define a good question?
  5. As an educator are you concerned about being asked the question you don't have an answer for?
  6. How much did you learn from the other participants and their questions? Did they have different perspectives that inspired your questions?
  7. In what ways does this activity benefit from sharing, from working as a group?
  8. How would you evaluate an activity that depends on creativity?
  9. How does creating questions work towards the goal of improving student understanding of science?
The Research
The Activity
Notes on Observing Birds
Primer on Behavior
About Making Questions

Notes on Observing Birds  

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Let me assure you of what you don't have to do. You don't need to buy binoculars, you don't need to buy a field guide to birds, and you don't need to travel to some exotic place to do your field observations.  

Where can you observe birds? Almost anywhere you are. All birds count. So if you live in the city and you don't get out much there are still a lot of birds that live in the city. I recently read a journal article about the competition between city pigeons toward food. I watched Starlings compete with Common Grackles for food in a city square in Washington, DC while English Sparrows were taking their daily dust baths.

One of the tricks to successful field-work is thinking of good questions. What does a certain bird eat? How does it find food? Who is it competing with for food? How does the bird rest? How does it keep track of its enemies? Who are its enemies?

Much of what was first learned in the science of zoology was learned through the process of observation. One of today's most important themes in biology, evolution, is the product of what Darwin observed as he traveled around the world on the ship the H. M. S. Beagle. He noted various organisms and began to think about what he was seeing. He spent many years thinking about what he saw and began to put patterns together and developed the concept of evolution. The ideas started from observations in the field.  

The Research
The Activity
Notes on Observing Birds
Primer on Behavior
About Making Questions

Primer on Behavior

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(Many examples of behavior are available in the Nine Themes of the Natural History Notes)

Behavior is defined as what the bird is doing. Usually the activities of the bird are in reaction to outside stimulus. It is looking for food, it is obtaining food, it is eating food, it is protecting its food from other individuals. The bird is protecting itself from enemies, looking for challengers to its territory, protecting its nest, courting or being courted. Animals are always involved in some behavior. If it is doing 'nothing' then it is probably involved in the behavior of sleeping, or resting, or looking for food, or looking for who knows where food is.

Birds rely primarily on two senses: hearing and seeing. Different species have specialized some of the other senses. Shorebirds can actually feel crustaceans with the tip of their beak and various species that specialize on eating dead food (vultures, albatross) have a good ability to smell. Does hearing and seeing play a part in what your bird is doing?

For general purposes there are seven types of behavior: breeding, feeding, resting/sleeping, socializing, defensive, maintenance, and migration. Any bird that you observe is participating in one of these seven behaviors.

1. Breeding can include site selection, nest building, courtship, pair bonding, in addition to the actual raising of the young. The breeding procedures are different for each species.

2. Feeding can include obtaining the food and managing to eat it.

3. Resting/sleeping is done in many different ways

4. Socializing includes the actions that define where a bird belongs in the community of its own species

5. Defensive behavior includes protecting itself from enemies

6. Maintenance includes care behavior such as preening, sunning, dusting, bathing and activities that promote health

7. Migration includes going from where they spend the spring to where they spend the winter. For some birds it is a long migration and for others it is simply a matter of changing altitudes.

The Research
The Activity
Notes on Observing Birds
Primer on Behavior
About Making Questions

About Creating Questions 

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Sometimes fundamental, simple questions lead to more complex, more interesting questions.

Don't discard a question because it seems uninteresting, or silly. Make it interesting or see where the silliness takes you.

The questions can sometimes help decide what it is you observe for. You might come up with a question you really want to find some information about, which will give your observation a goal and direction.  

Guided observations might have questions like:

  • How many times a minute does this particular bird feed?
  • How do I know that it is feeding?
  • How does it act when it is feeding.
  • How does it act when it is looking for food.
  • What percent of time is spent looking for food compare to what percent of time is spent eating?
  • How often does the bird seem to make a mistake in its feeding? How do we know?
  • What percent of the time does the bird rest?
  • What disturbs its rest? 
  • Where is the bird flying to?
  • Is it going to rest, to get food, or escaping from an enemy?
  • What are the other goals of flying?
  • Could it be a courtship flight?
  • A dispersal flight?
  • Do we know how old the bird is?
  • How could we find out?
  • Do we know what the sex of the bird is?
  • How much energy does it take to fly?
  • What advantage is there for the bird from its actions?
  • Do we think that birds ever play? How would we know?

Looking at the photos of the Western Gull might produce these questions: 

  • What are the gulls doing?
  • Are there really two pairs, or is it really four individual birds?
  • Can we determine their sex?
  • Is this a courtship activity?
  • Is this a threatening behavior?
  • Is it both courtship and threatening behavior?
  • Does the time of year matter?
  • Are these birds in mature plumage?
  • Are these questions guilty of anthropomorphizing?
  • Is it possible they are doing something that we do not understand?
  • Is it possible our definitions of behavior are too restrictive?
  • How could we gather more information?
  • What kind of information would we like to gather?

My goal in a sequence of creating questions is to create one or two good questions. What is a good question? A question that makes the observer think in a new way.  

Many of the hypotheses that scientists work from are the product of brainstorming utilizing the question process.

The purpose of some questions is just to help you think of the next question.  

These questions are very different than normal questions because they generally don't have answers. Some of them lead to investigations, but they all help to shape how we think of an experience.  

Many educators who have taught field ornithology describe creating an hypothesis as an art. While they are engaging in a science they are also engaging in their ability to observe. They are being critical in their process of thinking and they are trying to think of a new pattern of questions, a new pattern. Many times an hypothesis is trying to find a new pattern.  

Anna Comstock back in the 1920s created a curriculum that was dedicated to studying all aspects of nature. Part of this study was a series of questions that she set up for the student. They were primarily questions to encourage observation.

Here is her set of questions for the Red-winged Blackbird, a bird found throughout the country.

  1. How can you distinguish the red-winged Blackbird from all other blackbirds? Where is the red on his wings? Is there any other color besides black on the wings? Where? What is the color of the rest of the plumage of this bird?
  2. What is there peculiar in the flight of the redwing? Is its tail long or short? How does it use its tail in flight? What is its position when the bird alights on a reed?
  3. What is the song of the redwing? Describe the way he holds his wings and tail when singing, balanced on a reed or some other swamp grass. Does he show off his epaulets when singing? What note does he give when he is surprised or suspicious? When frightened?
  4. When does the redwing first appear in the spring? Does he come alone or in flocks? Does his mate come with him? Where do the redwings winter? In what localities do the red-winged blackbirds live? Why do they live there? What is the color of the mother redwing? Would you know by her locks that she was blackbird? What advantage is it to the pair that the female is so dull in color?
  5. At what time do these birds nest? Where is the nest built? Of what material? How is it concealed? What is the color of the eggs?
  6. Do the young birds resemble in color their father or their mother? Why is this an advantage?
  7. Is the redwing ever seen in fields adjoining the marshes? What is he doing there? Does he walk or hop when looking for food? What is the food of the redwings? Do they ever damage grain? Do they protect grain more than they damage it?
  8. What great good do the redwings do for forest trees? For orchards?
  9. At what time in the summer do the redwings disappear from the swamps? Where do they gather in flocks? Where is their special feeding ground on the way south for the winter? 
The Research
The Activity
Notes on Observing Birds
Primer on Behavior
About Making Questions


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Comstock, Anna B. (1911). Handbook of Nature Study. Ithaca, Cornell University Press

Dewey, John (1934). Art as Experience. New York, Perigee Books

Gallas, Karen (1995). Talking Their Way Into Science. New York, Teacher's College Press

Lehner, Philip N. (1979). Handbook of ethological methods. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Leslie, Clare W. (2000). Keeping a Nature Journal. Pownal, Storey Books

Perkins, David (1994). The Intelligent Eye: Learning to Think by Looking at Art. Los Angeles, The Getty Education Institute for the Arts

Tinbergen, Niko (1972). The Animal in Its World. Cambridge, Harvard University Press

Tinbergen, Niko (1968). Curious Naturalists. New York, Anchor Books

Tinbergen, Niko (1973). Ethology and Stress Diseases. (You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to read this file.)

 Whiten, David J., Whiten, P. Inquiry at the Window - Pursuing the Wonders of Learners. Portsmouth, Heinemann

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