If we want to put questions at the heart of teaching, how do we do that without adding to teacher workload, or opening up the class to the dangers of disruption?
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.
Why does an outstanding school ticking all the right boxes - with exceptionally well-trained staff, using all the technological bells and whistles- still fail to engage pupils with their own learning?
This was the question we were asked by a school we worked with recently, whose SLT had shadowed individual pupils for a week, hoping for a new perspective on their classroom culture. The teachers noticed one skill absent from their superficially capable cohort: they were not asking questions.
Why does it matter? What is so important about students asking questions?
Looking at the latest cognitive science, it appears that the act of asking a question not only plays a valuable role in the brain’s learning process, but is also a measure of engagement and depth of thinking.
The wonderful thing about a question is that it is generated from personal curiosity: to find out more about something new and interesting, to fill in a gap in understanding, or to challenge something that conflicts with an existing view. Ashwin Ram, computer and cognitive scientist, calls a question a ‘knowledge goal’, a personal driver and engager of a pupil’s short-term memory. Curiosity has been shown to have its own neural signature and occurs in the ‘zone of proximal learning’ or when we think we almost know something.
Competing for attention in the pupil’s potentially overloaded sensory register is the first hurdle many teachers face. Can your topic stimulus win the day against the day-dreaming, the pencil fiddling and the stomach rumbling? The more dissonance we create, the more surprising, the more heart-racing the stimulus, the more likely the brain is to begin processing it in short -term memory.
The next step for learning is the active processing of information, as the short-term memory can only hold something for 30 seconds before it is lost and your fabulous stimulus has gone to waste!
Information needs to be filed in long-term memory, otherwise it will not be available for later recall and use. This filing happens when the brain is actively engaged in thinking. This is hard and requires effort. It is only through the interplay between a students’ short-term and long -term memory (prior knowledge), that learning occurs. And it seems that generating their own questions is a powerful way of facilitating this interplay.
On the non-cognitive side, questions also have considerable psychological value. When examining student motivation, Columbia University Teacher’s College identified intrinsic factors, coming from within the student themselves, as far more powerful than external factors such as praise, grades or rewards. Amongst the main motivators they found were autonomy and purpose.
A question is a marvellous thing. It guarantees our attention, rewards us and then helps us make connections and lay down and reinforce neural pathways. In cognitive science terms it ticks all the boxes for effective learning. In psychological terms it is highly motivational, being personal to the asker, and showing purpose in the asking.
So why aren’t we cultivating and teaching questioning as a skill in its own right?
This piece originally appeared in the December 2018 of Education Today.
This year the Department for Education committed nearly £8m to the Curriculum Fund, to help teachers deliver the more challenging National Curriculum introduced in 2014, while reducing the unnecessary workload burden associated with curriculum planning and resourcing. A laudable ambition.
The pilot programme is focused on three elements: a knowledge-rich curriculum, whole-class teaching and teacher-led instruction. What’s important in the Government’s approach, however, is ensuring that ‘teacher-led’ doesn’t minimise the importance of the need for children to take ownership of their own education. The Montessori approach for example, perhaps the antithesis of ‘teacher-led’ has produced exceptional outliers such as Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. It’s important to recognize that there is no ‘one-size fits all’ methodology, so why not make sure we take the very best bits from all approaches?
So how do we take useful child-led elements from the likes of Montessori, apply them to existing classroom methods, and not overburden teachers with more work?
Best-selling non-fiction author Christopher Lloyd has launched a new initiative to raise awareness of the importance of an interconnected, cross-curricular approach to knowledge and education. He says, “Only by connecting knowledge back together again can children learn to think out of the box, develop critical thinking skills and become their own self-learning systems.”
As the Institute of Education’s Ruth Dann says, “Recognition of the importance of curiosity is evident in policy directives and regulatory frameworks governing both the teaching profession and the curriculum”. And now a pilot based on Lloyds latest book Absolutely Everything, the ‘Curiosity Curriculum’, gives pupils the opportunity to develop their own learning journey along a world history timeline that spans 3000 years. As they travel on six subject lines, rather than being told what to learn, students choose from a library of hundreds of Challenges spread across the timeline. The lines intersect, and the pupils must constantly hop between the different subjects in order to progress.
Taking another approach, at Learn2Think we are developing a way for pupils to cultivate their critical thinking through questioning skills, whilst working within existing lesson formats. Questioning can be seen as a measure of engagement and of depth of thinking. By pupils asking the questions they get to own their own ‘knowledge goals’. A. Ram, whose background is in computer science, states: “The ability to ask questions is central to the process of learning, reasoning and understanding,” supporting Choinard’s claim that, “The content of children’s questions parallel their conceptual advances.”
It is telling that levels of questioning fall off from the age of 5, and continue to diminish as children move through the school system. Is this because they’ve just stopped asking questions or because their motivations and engagement have plummeted?
Is it because we assume that asking questions is something children are born with, so we don’t need to teach it? Is it just a thing we do naturally? Does asking questions imply a degree of ‘not knowing’, which pupils are reluctant to admit to? Do teacher’s find the asking of questions disruptive?
Learn2Think believe that if teachers are given a framework for question generation at certain points of the lesson, and pupils learn to use questions to further their own learning, questioning can be a powerful tool for teachers to increase levels of engagement whilst still leading the process.
And don’t forget, if you want to encourage your children to engage in some questioning, enter your pupils in the Learn2Think Young Journalism Competition, part of Tolerance Day 2018. For more information http://www.toleranceday.org/young-journalist-prize-2018.html
Further detail of the Curiosity programme can be found at www.gocuriosity.com
At the Learn2Think Foundation we are heavily focused on the importance of questioning, and how we can embed that within the curriculum. The goal is to encourage the development of curiosity and personal voice in every student. You may ask, why? The reason is that questioning is one of the only ways that we can assess and measure curiosity, and curiosity is one of the most fascinating, and potentially useful, elements of being human.
We all know that curiosity killed the cat, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too eager to encourage it. Yet it’s possible to see that the discouragement of curiosity as a means of preventing people from asking what if? What if the world was more equitable, who gave the authorities the right to tell me how to worship, what happens if everyone votes?
It’s not simply a matter of old phrases, or demands for engagement in the world around us. There is a growing academic body of work which shows that questioning, and curiosity, actually enhances the ability to learn. Curious students not only ask questions, but also actively seek out the answers. Chip Bruce’s work on the Inquiry Cycle describes learning in terms of a continuous dynamic of ask, investigate, create, discuss and reflect.
Leo Casey has pointed out the importance of questions saying, “Questions are the root of inquiry; they initiate, sustain and invigorate each aspect of the process. Questions direct investigation, drive creativity, stimulate discussion and are the bedrock of reflection. In order to understand inquiry we need to deal with questions.”
Neuroscience is also beginning to reflect the importance of questions. A neurological study in 2014 showed that curiosity makes our brains more receptive to learning, and that as we learn, we enjoy the sensation of learning. Fancy that, encouraging children to enjoy learning!
The researchers found that the more curious we are about a topic, the easier it is to learn information about that topic. Once the subjects' curiosity had been aroused, they were better at learning and remembering completely unrelated information. Dr. Matthias Gruber, of University of California at Davis said, "Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it."
So if a teacher is able to stimulate students' curiosity about something they're interested in learning about, they'll be better able to learn things that they would normally consider boring or difficult. For example, if a student struggles with mathematics, personalising the topic to match a student’s specific interests, rather than using generic textbook questions, could help them better remember how to address similar problems in the future.
As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes, it's the question that stimulates curiosity -- being told the answer stops curiosity in its tracks before it can even get going. That is why the Learn2Think Foundation is researching ways to encourage questioning, to build stronger questions, and to ensure that teachers and students find ways of questioning together. Our first pilot launches in Spring 2019 so drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to learn more.
Remember as Albert Einstein said, ““I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”