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.