Thursday, March 12, 2015

Questions, Exploration & Learning

Children ask lots of questions. Sometimes their questions don’t move beyond repetitive “Why?” questions that can be annoying. But as well as helping them to learn, children's questions can also teach us a great deal about them and their learning. 

  • Children’s questions usually show us how keen they are to learn – We see that there are gaps in their knowledge, new areas of interest, & things that puzzle them.
  • Questions offer us a window into children’s learning – We discover what they are interested in, their learning styles, and how well they learn best.
  • Questions are also one way that children try to take control of their own learning - As they ask questions they try to set an agenda and focus for their learning.
  • Questions are a way for children to test their existing knowledge - They assess what they know and test their own hypotheses.
In short, questioning is a critical tool for children’s learning, and needs to be encouraged.

Above: One of my grandchildren discovers a pistol shrimp. This stimulated lots of questions!

1. How can I ask better questions to stimulate learning?

Questioning is a vital tool for parents and teachers. As well as answering questions, we should also try to ask a variety of questions, but NOT just to test learning. The best use of questions is when they are used to stimulate curiosity, problem solving, imagination, a quest for knowledge and as a result, learning. A good tool for asking better questions is a simple taxonomy. There are many ways to classify questions but Bloom's Taxonomy is still one of the most useful frameworks for helping us to get better at it. These include:

  • Questions that test knowledge or seek basic recall of knowledge – “Why might the pistol shrimp have one claw larger than the other?” “What did the first pig build his house from?
  • Questions that seek some level of interpretation – “If it was a sick or damaged claw how could we test this"? "How come Max's food was still hot when he went back to bed? (Where the Wild Things Are)"? “Why was Pinocchio sad?”
  • Questions that require application of knowledge or problem solving – “Okay, we've found three pistol shrimps with one big claw, what might the claw be for?" Why didn’t the stepmother let Cinderella go to the ball?
  • Questions that require analysis – “Where did we find the pistol shrimps? Why might they be living there"?Why do you think the 3rd little pig got up before the time he told the wolf?” “Was Fern’s father mean to want to kill Wilbur?
  • Questions that require synthesis of knowledge – "We've notice the clicking noise the pistol shrimp makes. What could this be for"? "So which animal sank the boat and how do you know (from 'Who Sank the Boat')?” “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) – "Let's find some information on the pistol shrimp and test our answers to the last question. What is the claw all about and is their a link with where it lives?“ Was Max naughty"? "Should his mother have sent him to his room?
You can find a more detailed overview of Bloom's categories here.

2. How can I encourage children to ask questions? 
As I have already said above, it is important for children to make good use of questions. To help them learn what good questions are you can model questioning for them. There are a variety of ways that you can do this.

  • 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 very funny 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).

3. Here are 4 strategies to help children ask better questions
I wrote a whole book about comprehension strategies some years ago ('Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work') but here are just four question strategies that can be adapted for use with children of varied ages. In these examples, I'm assuming a grade 5 (10-11 year-olds).

a) Question frameworks

Make a chart that has a simple framework for questing complete with examples. The one above based on Bloom's Taxonomy is an example. An even simpler example is one developed by Nila Banton Smith and has proven helpful for many teachers:

Literal - These ask for details or facts you can find in the text, e.g. 'What was the rat's name in Charlotte's Web?'
Interpretive - These require the reader to supply meaning not directly stated, e.g. 'Why did Fern's father want to kill the runt pig?'
Critical - These require the reader to evaluate something, e.g. 'Do you think Templeton was honest?'
Creative - These require readers to go beyond the text, to express new ideas, solve a problem etc, e.g. 'What other words might Charlotte have used in her web to save Wilbur?'

Use the chart to discuss the varied type of questions we can ask about stories, use the categories at times when asking questions of the class, model the varied forms in group work, and use them for some set work. I offer further information on the above questioning strategy in my book 'Balancing the Basics'.

b) Visual Comprehension

You can use images, cartoons or a short video segment to stimulate and model questioning. The example below shows how a simple template for group work can be used to direct attention at images and generate good questions and insights (see my post on 'Visual Comprehension' HERE). The grade 4 students were looking at a series of newspaper images.
c) Talk-to-the-author
I developed this strategy many years ago and wrote about it in 'Teaching Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work'. It is a very simple strategy designed to get young readers thinking about the implied author and meaning that is beyond the literal. The technique is applied like this:

Step 1 - prepare some passages of 300-1000 words in length (from magazines, school readers, newspapers etc), or identify a passage in a class reader or book.
Step 2 - demonstrate the technique using a smartboard and explain that the idea of this technique is to encourage us to ask questions that we might ask if we had the author in the room.
Step 3 - have your class help you with a second passage on the smartboard.  
Step 4 - provide a passage and ask them to read, making note of at least 6 questions they might ask of the author and also at least 4 comments they might offer.

d) Character Interview

I developed this strategy while working with gifted children, but it can be used in any primary classroom. It requires readers to select a character from a book and interview them. You can do this in several ways. The simplest, and perhaps the best way to start this strategy, is to ask children in pairs to come up with ten questions that they would ask of a character in a story if they had the chance. They can then act this out with one being the interviewer and the other the character.
An alternative to the above is to have one student prepare a series of questions to which another student, filling the role of the character, has to answer. Once again, it is helpful to give some guidance about the need to ask varied questions that include interpretive, critical and creative questions, not just literal ones.

Other posts on comprehension

You might like to have a look at the following posts on comprehension:

'Teaching and Supporting Children's Reading Comprehension' (HERE)
'Reading to Learn Using Text Sets' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Map Making' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Advance Organisers' (HERE)
'Emergent Comprehension in Children Under Five' (HERE)

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