Why can’t dogs talk? Why is the sky blue? How does an apple seed turn into a tree? Is anything real?
These questions, and hundreds of questions like these, come barreling out of the mouth of my curious and inquisitive 4-year-old on a daily basis. Preschoolers amaze me. Their interest and intrigue about the world around them is so evident from the moment they enter it. I quickly find myself asking this question, “How do I begin to answer these?” and as I work to construct my response, I can’t compose an answer fast enough before the next question comes barreling out.
I saw this same phenomena happen with kindergartners. Teaching kindergarten for several years — I was asked questions like these several times in a day. Unabashedly. Brilliantly. Fearlessly. They had questions and they assumed I could lead them to the answers. And when I asked questions to my kindergartners, their hands flew up, their bodies were shaking, they were on the verge of exploding as they anticipated me calling on them. If I had a question, they were confident that they had an answer. Not only were they eager to answer – they were equally as eager to learn. For kindergartners, inquiry was a strong motivator.
The Loss of Inquiry
Now, take those kindergartners and fast-forward four years. Now teaching 4th grade, I stood in front of my class and posed a simply-stated question: “What questions do you have?” Not a single student was eager to answer. I waited, watched students with their heads turned away, non-verbally screaming, “Don’t pick me!” Saw students hunker down in their seats, urging me to recognize their lack of confidence in having to answer — or embarrassment at the chance of being picked. Did questions make them uncomfortable?
I was shocked. In that short amount of time, something had happened. Their curiosity and inquisitiveness had faded. But why? Were they intimidated by their peers? Scared of asking the “wrong” question? Not sure of the response I was looking for? I started thinking about what I could do to fix this. Shouldn’t it be okay to acknowledge and accept that you don’t have all the answers? By prizing and praising having the answers, we cultivate the impression that asking questions doesn’t make us smarter.
Changing the Mindset
Indeed, asking a question tells the receiver that you don’t have enough knowledge to fully understand the topic at hand. But it also tells the receiver something more insightful — that you are knowledge-seeking and curious. The desire to ask a question shows a higher level of thought, one that accepts that your own knowledge of a situation isn’t complete or perfect. So, you seek out ways to gather the information you need — you read, you study, you play, you explore, and you discover. Your curiosity drives your learning. And all of this new learning probably started with asking a question. This is problem-solving at its very best.
So, how do we cultivate an environment where students are encouraged to ask questions? Here are three ways to get started:
- Create a “fail-forward” environment: If students don’t get something right away, celebrate it. Encourage them to seek out the information that will lead them to the answer – and let them know that failing is an essential component to learning. By creating an environment that encourages inquiry through iteration, students will feel comfortable in asking questions and failing a few times in order to get to that coveted answer.
- Affirm all questions: I remember sitting in my high school algebra class. Mr. R was writing out a math problem. I was lost. And there was no way that I was going to raise my hand and ask for help. I remember Mr. R’s response to the last kid who had the courage to do so: “That’s a stupid question.” So I sat there, day after day, and struggled with understanding the content — simply because I was afraid to ask a question. If Mr. R had encouraged rather than stifled inquiry, I think I would have gotten a lot more out of that class – and truly understood the content.
- Have students reflect on learning: While affirming questions is an important first step, we want this to become a habit. At the end of a lesson or class discussion, have students take a moment to reflect on how questioning helped guide their thinking. Through reflection, students begin to recognize the vital role inquiry plays in their learning. This puts them on the road to self-discovery, problem-solving, and innovation – each of these integral components of 21st century learning.