Monday, August 25, 2008

Questioning: A key part of learning

Kids ask lots of questions. Sometimes their questions don’t move beyond “Why Mum?”. Professor Michelle Chouinard’s (professor of psychology at University of California Merced), suggests that her research shows that children ask an average of three questions every two minutes. And the findings of Hoetker & Ahlbrand 40 years ago, that showed that teachers ask about 2-4 questions every minute, continues to be replicated. But sadly, many of these questions simply test knowledge and recall.

Questioning is a critical part of children’s learning, but it needs to be used well. There are two dimensions to thinking about questioning:

  • The questions children ask.
  • The questions that we ask of them.

Two of my grandchildren (Jacob & Rebecca) on a trip to the Australian Museum with me. A great stimulator of questions!

A few basic principles about children, questions and learning
  • Children’s questions usually show that they are keen to learn – that there are gaps in their knowledge, new areas of interest. They need answers to things that puzzle them.
  • Questions offer us a window into children’s learning – what they are interested in; their learning styles; how well they are learning.
  • Questions are also one way that children try to take control of their own learning; where they try to set an agenda and focus for their learning.
  • Questions are a way for children to test their existing knowledge, or test their own hypotheses.
Asking varied questions to stimulate learning

Parents and teachers should try to ask a variety of questions. While the younger the child the more use you will probably make of simple recall type questions, there is no reason to limit your questions to these questions. There are many ways to classify questions, but here is one way to do it based on Bloom's Taxonomy (still one of the most useful frameworks for questioning).

  • Questions that test knowledge or seek basic recall of knowledge – “What colour is the frog?” “What did the first pig build his house from?
  • Questions that seek some level of interpretation – “Who sank the boat?” “What was the story about?” “Why was Pinocchio sad?”
  • Questions that require application of knowledge or problem solving – “Why didn’t the stepmother let Cinderella go to the ball?” “Why are there so many worms in this bit of the compost heap?”
  • Questions that require analysis – “Can you show me all the animals that live in water?” “Why do you think the 3rd little pig got up earlier than he told the wolf?” “Was the Fern’s Daddy mean to want to kill Wilbur?
  • Questions that require synthesis of knowledge – “So which animal sank the boat and how do you know?” “What do you think is going to happen when the 3rd Billy Goat crosses the bridge?
  • Questions that require some type of evaluation (opinion, values, critique, judgement) – “Was Max naughty? Should his mother have sent him to his room?
You can find a more detailed overview of Bloom's categories here.

Five pieces of advice to consider as teachers and parents

  • Encourage children to ask questions
  • Ask questions of children that encourage learning and thinking
  • Avoid over-using questions that just test learning, or that simply channel learning in directions that you want it to go.
  • Try to give honest answers to children’s questions.
  • Don’t be frightened to say “I don’t know”, but use this to demonstrate that not knowing the answer should lead to further learning “Let’s try to find out…
In Australia we have a wonderful advertisement for an Internet company that has a sequence of exchanges between a boy and his Dad. In one the boy is doing some research for school on China. He asks his Dad, “Dad, why did they build the Great Wall of China?

His Dad suggests, “That was during the reign of Emperor Nasi Goreng - to keep the rabbits out – too many rabbits in China”.

I'll say it again, we should never be afraid to say, “I’m not sure, but I’ll think about it and let you know” (view the video HERE).

Expect children to test you with their questions as they explore learning

As you ask better questions of your children, they’ll ask better questions of you. Prepare to be tested! Kids questions can stretch us. You’ll need to have your wits about you; kids are good at catching you out with their questions. Earlier in the year just after he’d started Kindergarten my grandson Jacob suggested to his Dad that there was a number called a “quintillion”. This is how the exchange unfolded:

Dad: “There isn’t a number called a quintillion.”
Jacob: “Well, when do numbers stop?
Dad: “They don’t, they go on forever.”
Jacob: “Well, why couldn’t one of them be a quintillion?

End of conversation! Well, maybe not, they probably talked for ages about infinity.

Above: Jacob and his Dad

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