Let’s teach kids to value questions even more than they love answers

When kids ask questions it can flick the switch on their curiosity and creativity. From www.shutterstock.com

My son Joshua (10) wants to know what it would cost to build a bridge between South Africa and Australia. That’s the third question in the last ten minutes. “I dunno,” I confess, and he replies: “But how much do you think?” I direct him to Google.

There’s just no getting away from young children’s questions. They are naturally inquisitive.

In my university lectures, it’s a different story. Wrapping up, I ask: “Right class, any questions?” Thirty silent seconds pass. “There must be a question. Anything?” More silence, and then a hand goes up. The student asks: “Umm, will this stuff be in the exam?”

That’s not the type of probing question I was hoping for. Children’s insatiable curiosity and search for new knowledge is getting lost somewhere along the way. Where have we mislaid the art of the question?

Seek and ye shall … get impatient?

More and more, children are being told to shut up, take notes and do well in tests. Participation is discouraged. This attitude follows them to university: former Yale professor William Deresiewicz complains in his book Excellent Sheep that “curiosity is dead”.

Deresiewicz believes that even elite schools are simply manufacturing students: they’re smart, they’re driven – but they have no intellectual curiosity. They don’t ask questions.

Former maths teacher and tech guru Dan Meyer agrees. Modern students are “impatient with things that don’t resolve quickly”, says Meyer. He explains:

(They) expect sitcom-sized problems that wrap up in 22 minutes, three commercial breaks and a laugh track.

Students want quick, easy answers – not to ask hard, probing questions.

There’s a strange paradox at work here. We live in an era where information is more freely available and easily accessible than ever before. Learning has, broadly speaking, evolved in three stages. First, knowledge resided in books or was held by experts. Students had to “knock” – to go looking – to find the answers. Then came Google, and with it students learned to “seek” because it was right there at their fingertips.

With the advent of Facebook and other social networks, we’ve entered the era of “ask”. Knowledge resides in the minds of the network, so students can just throw out a question on their Facebook page: “Hey guys, how would you answer this question that our professor set?”

My PhD research traced the impact of this shift by exploring student learning on Facebook. Students don’t read lengthy documents – like academic papers – any longer. They don’t go hunting for answers. They just put a question out to their network, sit back and wait for the answers to come their way.

There’s the paradox: in the online world, asking is ubiquitous. But offline, in spaces like the lecture theatre, asking questions is a dying art.

The quest for the question

There are several ways in which teachers and parents can instil a love of questions that will last a lifetime. Take my son’s bridge question. “Josh,” I say, “that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer but it would be fascinating to find out. I wonder if anyone has ever thought about it? Why don’t you Google it and see what you can find?”

Now the kicker: “And while you’re searching, see if you can figure out what material would have to be used”. He looks at me for a moment, replies “OK”, grabs his phone and starts tapping away. We’re starting with one question and one answer – then going in search of more.

This building curiosity floods the brain with dopamine, which gives kids a positive push to learn and know more.

One recent study suggests that teaching children philosophy and guiding them through questions that lead to more questions has a positive impact on their progress with maths and reading.

For university students – like my silent class – one process of using questions to stimulate critical thinking and idea generation that works well is the Socratic method. This provides a space in class for questions, debates and for students to challenge their teachers and each other – respectfully.

In a research paper about the method, Sharon Jumper says that Socratic discussions are:

… a fantastic tool for educators in the online environment, as they build collaborative learning communities and increase interaction.

This technique is being applied well by a number of websites that flatten traditional classroom power structures. The sites try to encourage learning through questioning. Socrative, for instance, turns learning into a game: students compete through questions and answers.

Other sites like Socratic use gamification and also encourage students to put questions to the online community which has gathered there to learn. This sows the seeds of discussion – and paves the way for more questions.

Technology is a powerful way to get children and students asking questions. Researchers have found that widely available tools like WhatsApp can be used to encourage questions. Even the shyest person can be emboldened to use the messaging service rather than sticking their hand up in front of classmates.

In a world full of questions desperately needing answers, isn’t it high time that we reignited the dying art of asking questions?

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