What happens to the infinite array of questions that preschoolers have? They can be endless, tiresome, even embarrassing when asked in public. What happens when I sneeze? Why is that dog sniffing the tree? Why am I tall in my shadow? Why is that lady in a wheelchair? Interestingly, such questions are a perfect vehicle for cognitive development, asked right at the time that information is needed by the child to resolve the uncertainty or disconnect with what is already understood.
While I can assure you that questions continue throughout different stages (my favorite being asked by a kindergarten student: How come I can keep one leg up in the air for a long time but not two legs?), sadly, they wane quite markedly as students progress through school. I wonder if we have somehow taught them that adults have all of the answers and that teachers know everything; that children’s role is to passively take in information. Thankfully, there are many gifted educators with abundant subject knowledge. Yet, even with this knowledge, if we take the lead on all learning, we deprive the child of the opportunity to formulate his or her own questions and to struggle through the answers. We may even miss important information about a child’s misunderstanding and lose out on the opportunity to strengthen his or her learning.
Student-generated questions yield lots of advantages. They help to connect what students are learning with prior knowledge, they lead to further questions that produce deeper learning, they effectively help students understand oral and written language, they appear to help with retention, and they are very empowering. In essence, they are giving the child the occasion to set his or her own or a shared learning agenda within the framework of any given topic. Being charged with the questioning role that’s usually reserved for adults puts the ownership of learning where it belongs -- squarely on the learner!
Sir Ken Robinson, knighted for his service in the arts and famous for his widely popular TED Talks, is quoted as saying, “Curiosity is the engine of achievement.” It is the mind full of curiosity that will continue to develop and to take on our world’s problems one day.
So, keep the curiosity alive. Look for experienced instructors who know how to frame a mix of questions from simple to complex and who foster a classroom culture of inquiry. Go ahead and encourage those questions, no matter how small, large, unanswerable, hilarious or embarrassing. They are the mark of a beautiful thing: a thinking and growing person.