In the age of information, factual answers are easy to find. Want to know who signed the Declaration of Independence? Google it. Curious about the plot of Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous novel, "The Scarlet Letter"? A quick Internet search will easily jog your memory. But while computers are great at spitting out answers, they aren’t very good at asking questions. But luckily, that’s where humans can excel.
Curiosity is baked into the human experience. Between the ages of 2 and 5, kids ask on average 40,000 questions, said Warren Berger, author of "A More Beautiful Question," at the Innovative Learning Conference hosted at the Nueva School. Young kids encounter something new, learn a little bit about it, get curious and then continue to add on a little more information with each new discovery. Warren says that’s where curiosity happens, in the gap between learning something and being exposed to something new.
“Kids are lighting up their pleasure zones and getting dopamine hits every time they learn something that solves something they were curious about,” Berger said. He contends that questioning is a highly valued skill. Companies are looking for people who can ask deep questions that will solve real problems and lead to profitable solutions. Equally important, it’s up to an informed citizenry to ask questions about the world, policies and the actions of our government.
Luckily, kids are hard-wired for that kind of generative curiosity. Unfortunately, “right around age 5 or 6, questioning drops off a cliff,” Berger said. Paradoxically, when kids go to school they stop asking so many questions. “Children enter school as question marks and leave schools as periods,” Berger said, quoting Neil Postman.* But why?
There are a lot of understandable reasons why questioning drops off in school. Foremost among them is time. “Time really conspires against questioning,” Berger said. “In the classroom there often isn’t time to let kids ask their questions.” And really good, deep questions often take a lot of time to unravel -- more time than a harried teacher trying to cover all the curriculum often feels she can afford. And while time pressure is a very real part of teaching, not making time for questioning says a lot about how valuable it is to us. People make time for the things they value.
But knowledge can also be the enemy of questioning. “As we know more, or feel we know more, we may be less inclined to question,” Berger said. Sometimes answers can close down other avenues of thinking or ways of seeing a problem, but that all depends on how teachers treat knowledge. When treated as a life-long endeavor, learning a little bit about something opens up space to learn more.
And of course there are social barriers to questioning. Many kids don’t see asking questions as “cool.” And the perception that question askers are suck-ups or dorks probably also comes from fear. Many people feel vulnerable admitting they don’t know something. They are afraid to offer a window into their inner world by wondering out loud.
These barriers to questioning are real and challenging, but there are lots of ways parents and teachers can work to make questioning a normal part of school and life. One of the primary ways adults can support questioning, Berger said, is to model curiosity and to value questions. Instead of asking a child, “What did you learn at school today,” a parent might ask, “What great question did you ask today?” Or, when a child asks one of those great, deep questions that gets at why humans are even here, parents could dive in and explore the question with their child.
“You don’t have to have the answers. You just have to have the interest,” Berger said. Instead of trying to close off questioning by providing a pat answer or a terse “I don’t know,” parents might say, “If you were going to start answering that question, where would you start?”
“We want their questions to be large and expanded instead of being diminished and eventually going away,” Berger said. That philosophy should apply to school as well.
5 WAYS TO HELP STUDENTS BECOME BETTER QUESTIONERS
1. Make It Safe: “I think this might be the most important one,” Berger said. Many kids won’t raise their hand in front of the whole class to ask a question because they’re shy or nervous. “Fear kills curiosity,” Berger said. “The two things do not exist very well together.” But a student that might be afraid to question in front of the whole group may be willing to ask questions in a smaller group or to write a question down. Teachers can help make small groups even safer by laying out protective rules like “no question can be edited or judged.”
“The key thing is it makes questioning the point of the activity, and that is rarely the case,” Berger said. “The point is always to get to the answer.” Asking good questions takes practice. The Right Question Institute offers protocols to get students questioning, but teachers shouldn’t expect kids to immediately be good at it.
2. Make it Cool: Berger suggests convincing kids that good questions lead to cool stuff and make the world a better place. Furthermore, people who ask good questions are cool people, even rebellious people sometimes. “The people who are really breaking new ground are the people asking questions,” Berger said. “Questioners are the explorers, the mavericks.”
And questions can make people uncomfortable, especially when they hit on something true. “If you are a questioner, you are going against the grain,” Berger said. “That could appeal to young people.”
3. Make It Fun: Turning questioning into a game can be a great way to make the process more lighthearted and fun. Frame the process as being a detective, solving riddles or puzzles. One possible game to get kids started is to take closed questions and turn them into open questions and visa versa. This helps kids really understand the difference and what makes a strong question.
Students could also approach the issue with "why" questions to dig into it, then start asking “what if” questions to open up their imaginations and finally “how might we” questions to begin coming up with solutions. “How might we” is a more invigorating and creative questioning tact that “how could we” or “how should we” prompts, which tend to have more judgment in them.
4. Make It Rewarding: Many students are used to empty praise from their teachers. When students venture a deep question, they commonly hear, “That’s a great question, let’s move on.” But an educator’s genuine interest in the question will be much more powerful than any praise.
Additionally, teachers can create structures in their classes to reward questioning. Perhaps there is a best question of the week, where students get to vote on one another’s questions. Or maybe there’s a bonus question on a test that is itself a question: “What question should have been on this test, but wasn’t?”
5. Make It Stick: Questioning has to be a regular part of the school day for it to become a student habit. The famous comedian George Carlin used to talk about “vuja de,” that none of this has ever happened before. He was joking, but he also credited his ability to look at familiar situations in fresh ways as a key to his success.
Educators could follow Carlin’s lead and spend some time one day a week looking at a common object or idea and pushing students to ask questions about it as if they’ve never seen it before. “If you can instill this habit of mind in kids, this is the key to success for innovators,” Berger said.
If educators can find the precious minutes to foster these habits, Berger believes it could go a long way to developing critical thinkers. “I know that often times it doesn’t feel like there’s room to do some of these things under the current schedules and demands, but I feel like what needs to be done is small acts of insurrection,” he told educators and parents gathered at the conference.
Questioning Is About Power
Feeling confident to question the systems of power around us is one of the key jobs of an informed citizenry. Kids need to learn during their time at school that they have the right to know, to challenge assumptions and to dig deeper. Fostering this mentality in students can be challenging for teachers who are often complicit in systems of control over students. But often when teachers open the space for these questions, value them and explore them with students, a deep trust is built.
“I also think questioning matters because questions open up a dialogue instead of shutting it down,” Berger said. He says it’s the honest, thoughtful, respectful questions that start really good discussions. And ultimately could lead to the equity that so many educators and students are striving toward.
It’s also important to note that questioning makes a student vulnerable, and every student has a different relationship and experience with standing up to authority. “It’s very possible that there could be some groups of kids who would be more worried about how questioning is going to make them look,” Berger said. “That kid has more at stake,” and teachers need to recognize that.
These equity questions are the next topic Berger wants to explore. One study he read showed that upper-income families encouraged questioning in school, while lower-income families told their children to fit in and not rock the boat.
“Just because they’re not asking a question doesn’t mean they won’t have them,” Berger said. He’s researching how people are making questioning safe for everyone. Ultimately, questioning and reflecting are the keys to self-growth, something educators want for all their students.
“It’s OK to ask ambitious questions about yourself, your life, and that you won’t have the answer right away,” Berger said. Often people don’t ask those kinds of questions because they’re afraid they won’t have the answer. But if questioning deeply has always been part of the learning process, perhaps the next generation of citizens won’t be so afraid to sit with those hard questions.
*An earlier version of this story did not properly attribute this quote to Neil Postman. We regret this error.