Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 17, Issue 2, Article 10 (Dec., 2016)
Jacquie L BAY, Fehi FEHOKO, Mumui LA’AKULU, Ofa LEOTA, Lesieli PULOTU, Sina TU'IPULOTU, Salesi TUTOE, Oliveti TOVO, ‘Ana VEIKOSO, and ‘Emeli H POUVALU
Questioning in Tongan science classrooms: A pilot study to identify current practice, barriers and facilitators

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The role of questioning in the development of scientific literacy

Scientific literacy (also referred to as science literacy) is identified internationally as a core objective within 21st century school science education (Douglas & Rodger, 2014; Millar, 2008). Definitions of scientific literacy are variable but all relate to the development of capabilities (knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values) that enable the use scientific knowledge and understanding in decision-making at personal, community, and societal levels (Bybee, 1997; Laugksch, 2000; Millar & Osborne, 1998; OECD, 2013). The scientific literacy approach to science curricula arose initially from the need to address the purpose of science education in schools (Douglas & Rodger, 2014). Twentieth century science education was dominated by content-laden curricula. These were designed to train future scientists, and usually delivered using decontextualized didactic approaches (Osborne, 2007). Increasingly complex interactions between science and society in the latter half of the twentieth century demanded review of these approaches. Science education that supported the development of critical consumers of science as well as potential future scientists was required (Bull, Gilbert, Barwick, Hipkins & Barker, 2011; Osborne, 2007). Thus, the past 20 years has seen a gradual shift towards science education that promotes the development of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values required to engage with and use scientific evidence. When embedded in a contextual approach this contributes to the cross-curricular task of development of critical, informed citizenship; a process enabling adolescents to engage with and act upon evidence relating to complex, open-ended, future-focused issues (Hipkins, Bolstad, Boyd, & McDowall, 2014). Such issues are associated with complex interactions between science, technology, health, the environment, economics, culture, and sociology. Thus, while the focus of this paper is on the role of questioning in the development of scientific literacy (including interactions between science and society), we note that in science classrooms exploration of such issues should be inextricably linked to the development of contributing capabilities such as health and environmental literacies (Grace & Bay, 2011; Zeyer & Dillon, 2014). Furthermore, exploration of multiple perspectives should evolve within the learning experiences. This enables students to explore and value diverse perspectives that include science (Kahn & Zeidler, 2016).

Development of scientific literacy requires critical thinking. This is associated with dispositions that encourage inquiry alongside questioning linked to observation, evidence-seeking, analysis, and examination of uncertainty, debate, and justification of decisions/positions/arguments. To cultivate critical thinking, learning environments should encourage students to ask questions, think about their thought processes, and develop habits of mind that enable them to transfer critical thinking skills from the classroom to life situations (Molnar, Boninger, & Fogarty, 2011). Therefore, questioning is an essential component of learning environments that promote development of scientific literacy and contribute towards life-long critical informed citizenship.

Questioning in Tongan Science Classrooms

The Pacific Science for Health Literacy Project (PSHLP) is a multi-sectoral partnership involving education, health, and science communities in Tonga, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand (NZ). The project supports the development of capabilities required for adolescents to explore and take actions relating to the non-communicable disease (NCD) epidemic, a complex, open-ended issue of significance in Pacific Island communities (Bay & MacIntyre, 2013). Health literacy is identified as a core capability alongside scientific literacy required to enable students to negotiate health-related SSIs (Bay, Morton, & Vickers, 2016). Health literacy is associated with application of knowledge, skills and self-efficacy enabling evidence-based decision-making and actions related to health and wellbeing (Nutbeam, 2000). As with scientific literacy, this is applied at the level of personal, community, or societal decision-making and is considered critical to empowerment (Nutbeam, 2000; 2008). Therefore in the context of the PSHLP project and this study strategies to support the development of health literacy and scientific literacy are examined simultaneously within PLD.

Practicing teacher capability development is a key component of PSHLP. This supports teachers to make evidence-based decisions related to learning and teaching that facilitate improved development and application of scientific and health literacies within the adolescent population. Learning resources contextualized in aspects of the NCD epidemic have been co-constructed by the project team. Narratives supporting students to explore research evidence are central to the pedagogy on which these resources are based (Bay, Vickers, Sloboda, & Mora, 2012; Grace & Bay, 2011). Through these stories, students explore factors contributing to the NCD epidemic, develop relevant knowledge and understanding (conceptual, process and epistemic), examine scientific and health data (reimaged to suit the age of the students), and construct evidence-based arguments for actions that they could undertake to support NCD risk reduction in their families and school communities.

During professional learning and development (PLD) workshops examining interactions between and the development of scientific and health literacies, teachers within the PSHLP Tonga team identified a dilemma with regard to the importance of questioning as a capability required for the development and application of scientific literacy. The teachers proposed that questioning, debate and argumentation were not actively encouraged in classrooms within the team, nor in many Tongan families. While the teachers agreed that the development of critical thinking was a stated aim promoted in schools participating in the project, they felt that in practice, a combination of traditional teacher-centered classrooms and cultural factors meant that minimal questioning occurred. The teachers proposed that it was very difficult to support students to use scientific and health evidence in decision making if students had little experience of questioning and argumentation at school or at home. This hypothesis sits well with established literature examining the importance of argumentation in science, and thus in science education (Chin & Osborne, 2010; Lawson, 2003).

This dilemma is not unique to Tonga. Addressing respectful silence in learning within Pacific cultures is well documented (Chu, Abella, & Paurini, 2013; Lee Hang & Bell, 2015). In Tongan culture, faka’apa’apa (to be respectful, humble and considerate) is an important quality (Vaioleti, 2006). Traditionally, questioning and asking questions is not seen as a process supportive of development of knowledge, clarification, or understanding. Rather it is seen as questioning the authority of the elders, being parents, teachers and all those that are supposed to 'know' and are expected to tell others what to do, or give instructions. While indigenous knowledge and culture is often incorrectly perceived by western-dominated thinking as being timeless, this is not the case (Quanchi, 2004). In Tonga there is a gradual drift from the traditional position on questioning to one that finds questioning acceptable, depending on who is asking the question and for what purpose the answer is going to be used. This is particularly evident in younger generations with acceptance from some that the one who is questioned is expected to 'know' (therefore is being respected) and is ready to share information for learning. Therefore if the question is not challenging the authority of traditional thinking, but is asking for clarification or elaboration, and the respondent is prepared to engage, questioning may occur.

The PSHLP teachers proposed testing of two hypotheses to establish understanding of their current practice with regard to questioning in science classrooms and enable a baseline from which action research could be developed and evaluated

  1. That issues associated with questioning and respect in Tongan culture limit opportunities for questioning and discussion in classrooms, impacting potential for students to develop critical thinking capabilities required for development and application of scientific and health literacies.
  2. That while open questions were supportive of development of capabilities associated with critical thinking and scientific inquiry, where questions were used by teachers in science classrooms in Tonga, these tended to be closed questions.

The testing of these hypotheses via participatory action research placed the PSHLP teachers in the role of teacher-researchers (TRs) within this study. They identified this as an important aspect of their professional development within the PSHLP intervention, growing their capacity to support the development of scientific and health literacy in adolescents via learning contextualized in exploration of the NCD epidemic.


To develop a peer-to-peer protocol enabling teacher-researchers to characterize current teacher-led questioning practice and identify barriers and facilitators to the use of questioning in Tongan science classrooms. By utilizing an action-research approach, the study encourages teachers to engage in an ongoing ‘Teaching as Inquiry’ cycle (Ministry of Education, 2007; Weinbaum, Allen, Blythe, Simon, Seidel & Rubin, 2004).



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