We know that small children ask hundreds of questions a day when they’re little. The number of those questions peak though, at around 288 a day by the time they’re four years old. By Year 5, they are down to about 3-4 questions a day, and by senior school that number gets even lower, as they become increasingly concerned about getting things wrong and looking stupid.
Given that research shows that teachers ask about 400 questions a day, could it be that children’s potential for questioning, for owning and guiding their own learning is being squashed by a teacher’s need to work through the curriculum?
The current educational system rewards correct answers rather than encouraging questions. It’s a reflection of society, where we value being expert and ‘right’, and as a culture we don’t like looking like we don’t know something. Unsurprising then, that teachers are the ones asking all the questions.
Given the importance of questioning in developing resilience and independent, critical thinking and decision-making skills however, we need to ask - why isn’t more being done to encourage it?
Some teachers believe that student questions can be disruptive or take the class off -topic and that, as a result, they won’t cover all the work that they need to get through. They want to maintain control of the class and its questions.
At the Learn2Think Foundation we are developing a range of methods for teachers to use to get pupils generating their own questions as part of the day-to-day running of lessons. The goal is to ensure that questions aren’t distracting, but rather an integral part of the learning process. A simple, easily integrated step, yet a significant leap in how teachers orchestrate learning.
It is a framework to get children asking questions at the beginning, middle and end of topics. Each topic begins with a question-storm -a take on the traditional brainstorm- in which pupils have a limited amount of time to come up with as many questions as possible. In the research phase of a topic, they get to devise their own questions as jump-off points for research. At the end they are encouraged to delve deeper, practise critical thinking skills and come up with the creative questions that reveal the fundamentals of the topic.
Question-stems or cues are provided to pupils as a prompt to get them into good questioning habits. The stems take them from simple to complex, moving them from volume generation of simple questions, to making connections and reasoning, through to creative and problem-solving questions. Games such as Jeopardy and Question-catch make it fun.
With this approach, the onus moves from the teacher to the student to do the thinking work of coming up with questions. The learner gets to play out their own curiosity.
A question is a precious thing. It provides insight into a person - their concerns, their passions, their dilemmas. We all need to be allowed to own them, to be comfortable asking them, and to have other people value them. If we don’t practice this within our educational system, our children will be LESS curious when they leave school than when they joined.
Picasso famously said: “Computers are useless. They can only provide answers”. Let’s not allow the next generation to leave an answer-driven education system incapable of questioning for themselves. They will be unable to solve the problems that the new world throws at them, and any knowledge they do leave school with, may well be made redundant by the likes of Siri and Alexa.
This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Education Today.