For the one who doesn’t ask questions

Every year I start the year with an assignment for parents: Tell me about your child in a Million Words or less. As I tell my students’ parents – school records are but one way I have to get to know their child. I value parents’ perspective as I believe that they know their child best.

Parent responses never fail to amaze me. They offer a glimpse into a child’s world and his or her relationship with his parents that might never come out otherwise.

This year, one parent’s response truly made me stop and think. It came from a parent of a new student who was coming to our school from a different school system in another country. This was the parent’s response:

“The (former) system and its teaching staff do not encourage students to ask questions. When I raised this issue with his teachers, I was advised that they are only required to explain the lesson once and should the student fail to comprehend it, that was the parent’s problem. As my son was newly exposed to the language and his classmates spoke it fluently, he encountered many obstacles, academically and socially.  The result was an utter lack of confidence in himself and his abilities.”

No wonder this student, who was new to our school, was having such difficulty with asking questions! Be they “wondering” questions, or simply questions for seeking clarification, he just wasn’t asking them. I would sit with him and ask him to come up with any question – silly questions, irrelevant questions… anything! Nothing.

Asking questions – quick questions, deep questions, hypothetical questions, probing questions, essential questions – is an important part of what we do in our fifth grade class, and in our elementary school in general. It is so important to our approach that we have it on our report card in various forms: “Asks relevant questions”, “Seeks meaningful help when necessary (eg asks for clarification or repeated instructions)” “Considers other viewpoints” “Makes and tests predictions based on explorations and experiments” to name but a few. Students are encouraged – required even- to be asking questions all the time.

Inquiry requires that the right conditions be in place. It involves building trust and confidence right from the start, and modeling and practicing different types of questions.

Children are naturally curious, and it is a tragedy when a teacher, school, or system quells this sense of wonder in a child.

What to do when a child comes from a system where s/he is penalized for asking questions to one where s/he is almost penalized for not asking them? (Since we are required to evaluate and report on student questioning)… How to re-awaken a child’s spontaneous inquisitiveness?

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11 Responses to For the one who doesn’t ask questions

  1. Cristina says:

    I don’t think he should be even “almost” penalized for not asking questions. This should not be felt as a pressure – one opposite to what he was required to do before.
    What I would do?
    1. Create learning experiences that truly engage the student’s curiosity (without that…even I wouldn’t ask questions, really).
    2. Give him time.
    3. Start simple: model questioning. Use an “I Wonder Wheel” at first (with simple basic questions at first – Who? What? Why? How? etc) and spend time with the kid asking those questions in relation to a topic, story, piece of information of his choice.
    4. Make sure he has enough models to follow in the classroom – do other students inquire? Have you created a culture of questioning and thinking in the classroom?
    There are no simple answers but on the other hand, I think no school system can completely shut down a child’s curiosity.

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  2. Shocking revelation there. I wonder which system it was? The teacher now has a double challenge of getting the child to settle AND ask questions. Very interesting post!

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  3. David Didau says:

    Heartbreaking. I think, I hope, that this young person just needs time and nurture to reawaken their natural state of inquisitiveness. But how abhorrent that any school or teacher would take this view: would make me want to blow whistles.

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    • Tania Ash says:

      Thank you for the comment, David. You’re right, it is difficult for me to not get riled up when I hear of schools, claiming to deliver a “good” education based on a “respected” model, stifling one of the most precious things a child can offer – a sense of wonder as s/he explores the world with fresh eyes.

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  4. naini singh says:

    There is always the element of making assumptions. Maybe the child does not ask questions aloud, as he sensed the teachers in his old school did not approve of them ( quite hard to believe in this day and age!); he may be asking questions through internal dialogue. Quiet activities that pose challenges for the child and allow him to play around with ideas ( for example, which nets form a cube) can be achieved through internal dialogue as well. Just a thought.

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    • Tania Ash says:

      Thanks for the comment! I agree with you and try to provide alternative venues for questioning to happen, including, but not limited to, using Edmodo as a backchannel and blogging, both of which can, at times, give the quietest student a voice!

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  5. How can students learn to self regulate their learning if they are not encouraged to ask questions? This is all part of making sense of their learning and setting themselves appropriate goals. I hope that this student will meet a more inspiring teacher who will be able to reassure and bring back that sense of wonder.

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    • Tania Ash says:

      Agreed! Yet this is not the first student who has come from this kind of system and whose parents have lamented the fact that questions are not encouraged in those schools. Some come to me bursting with hundreds of questions they haven’t been allowed to ask, others have put up filters so thick that nothing gets through and they expect only to answer questions I have asked, not ask any themselves.
      How to help? I try to use humour to break down barriers, ask silly, irrelevant questions, and (when we study a topic like the human body) questions we wouldn’t normally ask in polite company! “Mysterious” images and videos also help spark questioning at times. Hopefully, with time and trust, students feel comfortable enough to let their natural curiosity resurface.

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  6. Sherry says:

    Re-read Ms. Ash’s article and note that the student in question is not from America. We must educate ourselves about the cultures that are represented in the classroom. A culture based on Confucianism (example: China, Japan, Korea) prizes 1) the understanding of correct knowledge, not creative extrapolation, 2) the written word is far greater in importance than discourse, and 3) the instructor is the revered dispenser of knowledge. This system is older than our country, so be patient with your students as you reshape these ancient beliefs. Put away your whistle, and remember where the USA falls in worldwide education statistics. We have work to do, creativity to foster, and intense intentional dialogue to orchestrate.

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  7. whatedsaid says:

    In many countries and cultures, students asking questions is not encouraged or even appropriate. The teacher is perceived as the bearer of knowledge, to be listened to and respected.
    Thanks, Tania, for the thought provoking post.

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  8. Lawrence says:

    Re Sherry’s comments: “A culture based on Confucianism (example: China, Japan, Korea) prizes 1) the understanding of correct knowledge, not creative extrapolation, 2) the written word is far greater in importance than discourse, and 3) the instructor is the revered dispenser of knowledge”, here are my thoughts.

    I teach in Singapore (Asian, majority Chinese).
    Point 1: given the constraints of time, most tend to prefer teaching right answers vs creative extrapolation.
    Point 2: True
    Point 3: True
    So we ace TIMMS, but students do not ask questions as they are afraid of looking stupid. So rather than Confucianism, it is more a fear of looking stupid. But things have changed for some time now. Students ask a whole lot of questions more…and teachers are more ‘enlightened’ too.

    If anything, I feel the real challenge is not “do we ask questions?” but “do we value skills above content?” This has practical significance. If we have 30 min, which do I do? We always seem to be rushing.

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