Questions, a kindling for curiosity
For many babies, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ is one of the first literary introductions to the concept of wonderment, contributing to the foundation ‘inquisitive period’, the preschool years. Anyone who wants a crash course or trip down memory lane in viral questioning, I’ll happily signpost you to my three young offspring, 2, 4 and 6 years old, heavyweights in curiosity, and the elicitation of information. Recent queries channelled my way include “Why do people need to be fast? What are shadows made from? and Where do cells come from?”; typically timed when spinning the numerous plates of everyday life. Depending on energy and concurrent distractions, I swing between zealously digging deep for succinct and sensible answers, and private screams to be freed from the constant interrogation!
Fostering innate inquiry
Quality aside, there’s consistency in the research that young children are question record-breakers. One survey claims a mother is asked 228 questions a day, with four -year-olds ranking the most inquisitive. Another, by Harvard-based child psychologist Paul Harris (2005) reports a child asks around 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five. What is so intriguing to me now, immersed in my own familial knowledge-bank role, is how naturally, without prompt, the very young ask large and deliciously meaningful questions. Furthermore, how this contrasts with the higher educator experience where the direction and volume of traffic of questioning are reversed. Used for a variety of purposes, educators typically spend anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of instructional time in question mode (Capalongo-Bernadowski, 2006). My focus here not to critique the utility of educator questioning, but to consider why the significant drop in ‘curiosity’ for learners as they age. Students often do not want to call attention to themselves, focusing their line of questioning on more pragmatic concerns. Why the stigma or embarrassment associated with asking questions?, why the loss of the magic of ‘relentless inquiry’?
Historic questioning techniques
Carefully crafted questions ignite discussion, triggering a multitude of answers. “Questioning is one of the thinking processing skills which is structurally embedded in the thinking operation of critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving” (Cuccio‐Schirripa & Steiner, p. 210). We used to be far more adept at it. Philosophers from Aristotle to Jean-Paul Sartre helped us in our ‘thinking’, and the passion for enquiry of critical thinkers like Galilei, Edwin Hubble, Marie Curie and Issac Newton changed the world. Many in higher education make use of the disciplined ‘Socratic Questioning Technique’, to help learners get to the truth of the matter or beliefs, to facilitate the revelation of flaws in reasoning. The educator aims to expose contradictions in thoughts and ideas, to guide towards solid, tenable conclusions (Fabio, 2019). While techniques of this nature are embraced by adult learners, they still prove challenging to master. Yet, as young children, we fire endless rounds of ‘but why’ questions, despite interim answers being offered.
Deconstructing the loss of wonderment
To the very young, their world is fresh; largely uncontaminated and untainted by others’ perspectives. I realise now, bearing witness to my own children’s development, they are not easily placated with my self-claimed succinct and meaningful answers. After multiple rounds of ‘but, why?’ it is clear they seek instead their own understanding of how the world works. Richard Saul Wurman, the original creator of the TED Conference suggests “in school, we’re rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question…which may explain why kids—who start off asking endless “why” and “what if” questions—gradually ask fewer and fewer of them as they progress through school”. Warren Berger, expert in questioning, argues the habit of asking questions is trained out of us by the educational system and the business world, an emphasis too often on short-term answers rather than exploring more far-reaching, potentially game-changing ideas.
Worryingly, the tide works against us. As reliance on technology grows, we read less and consume more visual media, which often does not allow for the more in-depth analysis and reflection required of critical thinking. “Given the ease with which information can be found these days, it only stands to reason that knowing where to look is becoming more important for children than actually knowing something. Not having to retain information in our brain may allow it to engage in more “higher-order” processing such as contemplation, critical thinking, and problem-solving” (Taylor, 2012).
The science bit
Some researchers classify questions into lower and higher cognitive type. The lower cognitive questions involve the recall of information. Higher cognitive ones are more open-ended, interpretive, and evaluative, and require the mental manipulation of information to produce or support an answer (White, 2010). Experts in critical thinking argue that children’s brains are not sufficiently developed to engage in higher order cognitive skills development, they require significant frontal lobe myelination before they can be learned (Martin, 2018). That is not to say however, we cannot work to lay strong foundation; that educators of for all ages should not nurture wonderment and questioning skill. To prioritise such practice over memory-based assessments prized in the UK system. In my mind, the right design of question is more valuable than the information transferred to learners, especially when it ignites an independent search for information.
Heavy expectations for ‘Curriculum for Wales 2022‘
Changes to school pedagogy and content have been outlined in the recently published draft of the ‘Curriculum for Wales 2022’. Although still in design, it promises to“provide education leaders and practitioners with greater agency, enabling them to be innovative and creative”. Critical thinking and problem-solving are named as one of 4 wider skills integral to the curriculum and the design of the areas of learning and experience (Education Wales, April 2019). There is little meat on the bone of the new Curriculum to publicly digest at present. but I have high hopes. I petition that they will ensure the maintenance if not growth of innate levels of curiosity. I do worry however, whether the resources will be available for our schools to deliver upon their ambitious new plans. The type of stimulus materials used has an impact on the questions children ask; children are less likely to ask deep conceptual questions when looking at drawings or replicas of objects than when looking at the real thing (Chouinard, 2007). Consequently resources continue to dictate a child’s fate. One economist estimates there will have been a cut of 9% or £500 per pupil in real terms between 2009-10 and 2020-21, if spending plans stay the same (Lewis, 2019).
Taking a leaf out of the book of ‘The Right Question Institute’ in the USA, I hope that the new Curriculum will embrace the opportunity to do more to nurture good questions design. It will require a mindset shift, and almost flip the roles of leaner and educators. The focus would be on supporting learners with coming up with the right question. “It involves vigorously thinking through the problem, investigating it from various angles, turning closed questions into open-ended ones and prioritising which are the most important questions to get at the heart of the matter” (ibid.).
Services to increasing ‘wonderment’
Parents, educators, employers, coaches: we should all be doing our bit to foster curiosity in our children, learners, colleagues, staff. If a rationale doesn’t make sense, we should encourage to voice objection or difficulty. We should encourage a personalised interpretation; that alternative explanations and solutions exist. In doing so we might just reclaim some of our long lost wonderment and curiosity, nurturing more flexible , creative and critical thinkers.
Next time you’re asked a question, hold back on ‘your’ answer, lead through your thinking instead. Discourage the passive acceptance of everything seen, heard or read. I believe it will be those with such skills that will not just survive but thrive in the 21st century.
I’m off now to investigate with my 3 wonderers, ‘why did’ Incy Wincy climb back up that water spout again?….
The right question at the right time can make a learning experience, because more than anything read, drawn, or even written, a question is acute and properly troubling.It creates a needle-point of light even as it suggests darkness…It jabs and fingers at a learner’s mind, then burrows in like a drill” (Heick, 2019).
Image Credit: Photo by Gratisography
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Beyer, B. K. (1995) ‘Critical Thinking’, Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation: Bloomington, IN.
Capalongo-Bernadowski, C. (2006) ‘The Effects Of Middle School Social Studies Teachers’ Questioning Patterns On Learners’, Doctorate Thesis, University of Pittsburgh.
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Taylor, J. (2012) ‘How Technology Is Changing the Way Children Think and Focus’ [online]. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-prime/201212/how-technology-is-changing-the-way-children-think-and-focus [Accessed 10th May 2019]
Walsh & Sattes (2012) ‘Thinking Through Quality Questioning’ [online]. Available at: https://www.boyd.k12.ky.us/userfiles/447/Classes/28920/Walsh-Sattes-PDF.pdf [Accessed 7th May 2019].
White, E.M. (2010) ‘Putting Assessment for Learning Into Practice in a Higher Education EFL Context’, Universal Publishers.