Asking the questions: using branching databases with young children

Barry Wake
Graduate School, University College Worcester
Pat Atkins
ICT Co-ordinator, Ipsley First School, Redditch
This article first appeared in MAPE Focus on Science Autumn 2000

As soon as they can talk, young children are always asking questions: 'Why, mummy?' 'But why do they, daddy?' 'So, you mean . . . ?'

They soon find that asking questions is a very useful strategy in trying to make sense of the world around them. The problem is that they might not be asking the 'right' questions: 'right' in the sense that questioning is a two-way process of communication.

In simple terms, the questioner and the 'answerer' have to be talking the same language, using terminology and concepts that are mutually understandable and, increasingly, that relate to a particular field of knowledge. This is part of what MacKenzie means when he states:

'The question is the answer'.

One way of trying to impose order on the apparent chaos around us is to look for patterns, by finding similar or dissimilar groups, and constructing categories and classifications.

Very young children will be forming questions, consciously or unconsciously in order to:

(Early Learning Goals for knowledge and understanding of the world, QCA 1999)

In science, KS1 children will be extending this to:

(Science Teacher's Guide: a scheme of work for Key Stages 1 and 2, QCA, 1998)

But getting the children to ask the 'right' questions is not always an easy task. Some early years classrooms have a daily 'Question Book' in which teachers, parents and children too can pose a question of their own. This may be initially quite straightforward: 'Are you coming to the Fireworks night? Have you got a teddy bear? Do you like custard?'

One important teaching objective here, amongst others, is to encourage the use of questions that allow only a yes or no answer. This technique provides the essential structure of a binary branching or hierarchical database which is often used for diagnostic or identification purposes. One common application in science is that of a botanical key. For example, by answering the yes/no questions about various attributes of the leaf, flower, or bark etc. you should eventually arrive at the name of the tree you are investigating (see Fig. 1). are investigating (see Fig. 1).

Question 1 Are the leaves like needles?

Yes go to question 2                         No go to question 3

Question 2 Are the needles in pairs?

Yes go to question 4                         No go to question 5

Question 3 Are the leaves simple or compound (several leaflets)?

Yes go to question 6                         No go to question 7

Question 4 It could be a Scots Pine.

[Start again.]

Question 5 Are the needles in circular clusters?

. . .

Question 6 Is the leaf heart-shaped?             

. . .

etc. etc.

Fig. 1. The start of a simple key for trees.

Young children, of course, may well use different questions couched in different terms, according to what they see as important and significant. And these questions are often not what adults would first expect!

One of the real advantages of this activity is that it can be used at whatever level the children are. It can be a really practical and concrete task, using physical objects, or photos and pictures. The whole structure can be laid out on the floor with cards and arrows, or represented by a diagram. What varies is the set of questions, the 'branching tree structure' and the result. Sorting and identifying materials from a given set would generate a different level of outcome, in terms of scientific understanding and language, for a Y1 class compared to Y6. What would be important is whether that set of questions worked or not for the users.

Here's how one teacher approached the subject.

Case study 1 Identifying plants and animals with Y3 children

I have been using decision trees with my Year 3 class during the last few weeks. I started to use them initially in science as a way of sorting and identifying plants and animals. Identifying a plant or animal involves recognising what group it belongs to. You need to pick out common features of one group that are not shared by another group.

An unfamiliar plant or animal can be identified by recognising what group it belongs to and then narrowing it down by a series of classifications to a particular group (or individual).

I started off by playing a version of 'Twenty Questions' where the children take it in turns to ask a question that can only have a yes or no answer. Some children find these questions difficult to formulate, but after a little practice they begin to realise that it is best to start with very general questions such as 'Can it fly?' or 'Is it evergreen?'

I then develop this and encourage the children to make simple keys to identify the plants and animals that they have found. The children often find it difficult at first to spot exclusive characteristics which can help them to divide the whole set into two groups (see Fig. 2). 

If the children have coped with this activity well then I show them how to present the key in a different way using questions rather than group characteristics. This only works for a specific set of plants or animals but producing a key like this helps the children to observe more carefully by focusing on distinguishing features. The children's own keys often reveal ideas which may need further discussion or clarification (see Fig. 3).

At this stage, I start to move on to using branching database programs on the computer to record their work and to give further practice in making and using keys and branching databases (see Figs 4 and 5).

This work also ties in with data handling in Maths and in ICT.

Pat Atkins


The 'right' questions for a branching database

In effect the 'right' questions here mean 'most efficient' i.e. the ones that get to answers with the least number of questions. One thing that happens is that a 'no' answer becomes just as useful and valid as a 'yes'.

Diagrammatically, a good branching database will look like a well-shaped, well-balanced tree with an equal number of branches at each level. This is what the children were aiming at in the above example: looking for the question that divided the animals into equal subsets, or as nearly equal as possible. That is the aim, and it does not always turn out that way!

But then it's asking the questions that counts.

Here are two further examples for slightly younger children.

Case study 2 Materials

One Y2 class had been looking into the topic of Materials and their Properties and having observed and classified the samples, they sorted them into various hoops and Carroll diagrams. Then they had to think up questions that gave yes/no answers for each sample.

Introductory activities

Programme of study: Science

(National Curriculum: Handbook for Primary Teachers in England, QCA, 1999)



In groups, the children choose ways of sorting and differentiating one set of objects, or one object, from the others. They use various criteria to frame questions for a branching database activity.

Example questions: Is it hard? Is it shiny? Is it springy? . . . etc.

As a whole class activity, a tree diagram is laid out on the floor. Arrows and question cards are used to divide materials into subsets, until each subset contains only one item.

ICT development

Class demonstration of software program to show how the decision 'tree' progresses with each question.

In pairs, the children transfer their results to the program. The more able can be given additional, harder materials to sort.

Practising sorting

Some children may not find it easy to frame questions that give either a 'yes' or a 'no' answer.

Sometimes the item itself may be difficult to categorise in such as way: is this piece of wood really hard or more or less hard? Is this rubber as springy as that plastic ruler? In such cases the children may have to agree on a 'working definition' or better still, think of another, more effective question.

One way to help the children is to give them practice in sorting objects into two subsets. This can be done concretely with hoops and Carroll diagrams, or anything that will define the 'set'.

Alternatively, with appropriate images and backgrounds, the skills and concepts can be reinforced using a program such as My World. The flexibility and open-endedness of the program allows the children to sort their teddies, fruit, or animals according to their own criteria.

Case study 3 Think of an animal

Some of the earliest branching database programs, made the activity into more of a game. For example, the screen prompt asked you to 'think of an animal'.

Having thought of, say, an elephant, the program might ask: 'Is it a lion?' On entering 'No' it would then ask you to type in a question that distinguished an elephant from a lion, e.g. 'Does it have a trunk?'

The process would continue in the same vein till the program had built up quite a large database of animals, which the children would find harder and harder to 'beat'.

In the following example, the Y1 children were given lots of practice with and without the computer, to discover criteria to sort a set of animal pictures.

Then, with the help of the teacher, it was transferred to the computer program, and the children tested it out by thinking of one of the animals they had used.

Introductory activities

Programme of study: Science/ICT

(National Curriculum: Handbook for Primary Teachers in England, QCA, 1999)



ICT development


Early Learning Goals for Knowledge and Understanding of the World (1999) Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).
Science Teacher's Guide: a scheme of work for Key Stages 1 and 2 (1998) QCA.
The Question is the Answer, Jamie McKenzie, From Now On vol. 7 No. 2 (1997) on line at

Further resources


Christmas Special (1990), The Seven Dwarfs, Janice Staines.
Early Years Special (1997), Mathematics and IT, Anne Farr.
Information Handling Special (1997), Making sense of information, Heather Govier.
The Clue Books (various subjects), Oxford University Press.


A short interactive example of a Tree Database is on the IT for Science web site:

Authoring programs that allow linked pages, e.g. Hyperstudio, Illuminatus, Magpie, PowerPoint can be used but they do not necessarily show the way the decision tree has built up. They can be quite useful after the questioning and answering has been done when you want to present the results.

Other software has been designed specifically for developing branching databases, for example:

Flexitree from Flexible Software, tel. 01865 391148, online at
Decision Tree from the RM Window Box series, tel. 01235 826000, online at
Decisions from Black Cat Educational Software. Tel. 01874 622114, online at
Retreeval (for RISCOS and PC) from Kudlian Software, tel. 01926 842544, online at

[top of page]