As soon as children learn to speak, they begin to ask questions. We can even become frustrated and impatient with the number of questions children ask. Sometimes we may not feel we’ve the time to respond. At other times we may not know the answers, and we don’t have the energy to pursue them. Yet, questions are a crucial way for children to learn. Our responses can shut the door to asking and learning or open the door to further inquiry and more information.
Later as children enter school, they come to understand that the important questions are the questions that adults ask. These questions point the way to where adults want students to give their attention. In fact, student questions often are discounted and treated more as distractions than they’re honored, respected, and used as possibilities to generate learning. Consequently, students learn to explore less of what they don’t know and ask fewer questions.
Unfortunately, the messages students receive about their questions risk cutting off key paths to learning that can be generated by questions. When students aren’t encouraged to ask questions, they often discount their curiosity, tolerate their confusion, and default to the thoughts and attention leveraged by adults.
In a world that increasingly demands new ideas, thrives on discovery, and rewards novel insights, discouraging questions delivers a serious disservice to our learners. Alternatively, if we reacquaint students with their imagination, honor their curiosity, and encourage their questions, we place in their hands a powerful tool for learning within and beyond what the formal curriculum presents. However, for most students, we need to reteach the role and value of questions to stimulate and support their learning. Let’s explore four ways we empower students to enhance their learning through questions they develop and ask.
First, we can teach students to ask questions about their learning as they learn. For example, when students study a concept, reading text, or develop a skill, they can ask themselves questions about the meaning and application of what they’re learning. Their questions help them organize, focus, and absorb new information and strengthen their recall. In fact, creating and asking oneself questions while learning proves a more powerful learning tool than highlighting or underlining text or taking notes.
Second when students ask questions that are more significant than seeking clarification and direction, we can resist providing immediate answers and join them in their learning search. We might begin by probing the source and implications of student questions to gain full understanding of what’s driving their questions. Further, we can engage with students to find answers, even when we might have a ready answer we could share. When we learn with students, we honor their interest and curiosity, and we provide them with approaches, options, and modeling they can use to learn independently.
Third, we can teach students to frame worthy questions about their learning. For example, we might introduce a taxonomy, such as Bloom’s or Depth of Knowledge (DOK), to help students to understand and utilize multiple levels of thinking and complexity in questions they develop. Then we can coach students to ask deeper, more significant questions in class discussions, probe with deeper questions and thinking in their writing, and practice deeper reflection as they learn.
Fourth, we can leverage growing questioning expertise among students by having them create some or all the questions they’ll be asked on a quiz or exam. At first, we might think this approach to be unproductive because students would know the questions in advance. However, if we coach students to create an array of meaningful, complex, relevant questions, their responses will demonstrate learning that may go well beyond what would have been demonstrated by unfamiliar questions at risk of being misunderstood or confusing to students. In fact, the process of developing good questions leads to greater understanding of content and enhanced organization of what has been learned than responding to questions developed by someone else.
Asking questions isn’t only a great way for young children to learn; questions are powerful drivers of learning regardless of age. Our challenge is to renew the natural tendency for children and young people to ask questions. However, we also can help them to frame, examine, and pursue questions that feature greater complexity, depth, and significance. When we do, we give them one of the most powerful tools for learning they can employ.