How to develop independent investigation questioning skills at home

Before I start, all my education work via the Geogramblings’ “Life Geographic” blog is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by ‘buying me a coffee. Thank you!

This article was published in the Spring 2018 issue of ‘Teaching Geography‘.

How To…? Develop (independent investigation) questioning skills at home

How can non-contact time be used to develop skills in developing questions and methods for approaching their investigation – links to independent investigation.

Since all the new Geography GCSE 9-1 specifications contain a greater focus on skills and enquiry, emphasising those aspects at Key Stage 3 so that pupils have enough practise and experience takes on greater importance. Take fieldwork for example, each GCSE instructs teachers to take pupils through the six stages of enquiry, from formulating hypotheses to evaluating the processes and outcomes. Therefore taking a similar approach with younger pupils to allow them to become familiar with the process before starting GCSE could be a way to go.

Developing questioning skills through independent learning at home could be done by following the “Question Formulation Technique” or QFT (Rothstein and Santana, 2011). As you can see from below, this technique follows a similar 6-step approach to enquiries at GCSE.

The 6 steps of the QFT from Rothstein and Santana (2011), put in context of independent investigations.

Take for example a mixed-ability rural high school in which a substantial number of housing developments are taking place. To establish a focus (Step 1), a statement based on a fact is presented to the pupils: “872 new homes will be built in our rural settlement of only 2000 dwellings”. This substantial geographical change cannot be ignored by the pupils, and they are highly likely to express much interest in it. In addition, the pupils are shown an image of one of the housing developments visible from the school.

View from a classroom window of a new housing development right across the road from a school

Step 2 saw pupils engage in a few minutes of discussion, after which they are given a worksheet and asked to put their ideas down in the form of questions. The teacher’s role now is to ensure these questions remain focussed to the topic and realistic with regards to whether the pupils can themselves attempt to investigate them, this is therefore Step 3 where the questions are refined. Here is a piece of pupil work which has reached the end of Step 4. The teacher’s worksheet allowed pupils to prioritise questions that they feel could be answered as part of a homework task, and with help, refine a question so it is suitable for investigation.

An example of a worksheet to aid pupils generate, refine and prioritise their questions

Step 5 is perhaps the biggest aspect to the independent part of the investigation and the most important, this is to come up with a simple methodology to answer their questions at home. Pupils were grouped up with peers who had similar questions or who were able to work together outside of school. The group with the pupil whose worksheet is shown in Figure 3 devised a simple street-walk, where they would count the number of houses along two streets of similar length, one in a nearby new development and along their own street. With teacher guidance groups generated data collection sheets. The final step took place when pupils return to class after conducting their investigation at home. Teachers now have the opportunity to help pupils develop a range of skills suitable for the information they have collected.

A big limitation could arguably be what if a number of pupils fail to complete the homework for any reason? So this approach is very much dependant on teachers being aware of realistic expectations of what their pupils can achieve through independent work. Using the example above, what if a number of pupils lived outside of the immediate area and therefore not within walking distance of a housing development? Teachers need to assess whether it would be realistic for say some of these pupils to arrange to visit a friend’s house for dinner and work on the task together, and perhaps it may be necessary to have pre-prepared resources where they could obtain secondary data for a range of likely student-generated questions. The worked example revealed that one pupil did it while they were walking their dog, three did it with one or both of their parents; a small handful did it on their way home from school that day. Most said they enjoyed it as it was different to ‘normal’ homework and were interested in finding out more about this radical change to their local landscape.

Students of all ability ranges should be able to generate workable questions with peer and teacher support, but a few may find attempting to explain their questions and the data to be collected in context somewhat difficult as it requires some abstract thinking. Further ideas for application can be found in the table below. As you can see, topics can be more generic in approach, but the more motivating issues would be tailored to the pupils and their local surroundings.

Example “Question Focus” statements (and topic)Possible ideas for first steps at schoolPossible application at home
Some rooms in my house need the lights on more than others (energy use, microclimates)Using maps to find the aspect of a student’s house, creating a rough plan of their house, generating a data collection sheetsData collection tallying total lightbulbs, those in use and for how long; tracking how the sun moves over a day by taking pictures; recording what times of day some rooms are naturally lit and for how long
Many planes fly over our area (logistics, transport)Use a flight tracker GIS to look for patterns; show students how to orient themselves north, how to spot planes etc; generating a data collection sheetsRecord frequency and direction of flights overhead at periodic times by plane-spotting, spotting contrails.
The last storm flooded parts of our townUse of weather and climate data to establish frequency of past storms; use of local news articles from previous floods; use of map skills to spot areas vulnerable to floodingTaking photos or drawing annotated sketches of an area that flooded; recording types of buildings/properties at risk
It doesn’t always rain when it is cloudyMake bespoke weather collecting equipment and data sheets (plenty can be searched for online!)Periodic collection of weather data
Example “Question Focus” statements for mini-independent investigations to develop questioning skills at home

References: Rothstein, D. and Santana, L. (2011) Make just one change: Teach students to ask their own questions. 4th edn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Publishing Group.


March 2021: Since writing this piece I have done plenty of research and reflection on how to better improve student’s enquiry and questioning skills. Blog posts such as Fake News? Think Critically… and Fact checking and fake news – ideas for teachers to help critical thinking give more ideas that used to adjust the above strategy for better outcomes.


Thank you! All my education work via the Geogramblings’ “Life Geographic” blog is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by ‘buying me a coffee.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

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