Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Helping to Grasp Wonder through The Art of Questioning

The Art of Questioning by Ginger Carlson

“What do you notice about that dinosaur’s mouth?” Sharon asks her son Alex, who like many four year olds has a penchant for any creature prehistoric. He responds enthusiastically, “Look at his sharp teef, Mom! I think that long one was for tearing the meat off his prey!” He leaps to the floor pretending to be a meat eater. His confidence in his own ability to draw conclusions soars, something that may not have happened had he been posed the question in a less open way.

What’s in a question?
We often ask them to get our children to prove what they know or have just done or to spit out ‘the facts’. If words alone have so much power, forming them into the right question can move mountains, the kind that make for more creative and confident thinkers.

Sharon knew that Alex would easily be able to rattle off which dinosaurs were meat eaters and which were not. But instead of just drilling him with “Do you think that dinosaur is a meat eater?” she decided to take the conversation (and the thinking) further. With a good question, we have the power to focus our children’s attention, help them observe and compare their surroundings, to pose problems, investigate relationships and
stimulate their reasoning. At the same time, we can also establish an atmosphere of trust and provide intriguing experiences that guide their curiosity.

A loaded question.
At the heart of asking good questions is a true exploration of our children’s wonderings about life. Through our use of questions we can help them tap into their creativity by allowing them to have a truly inquiry based learning experience, driven by their own interests, observations and predictions. Instead of asking yes or no questions or ones that require them to simply state the obvious, offering questions like “What happens if…?” , “Can you find a way to…?,” or “I wonder what would happen if…” can open conversations that may lead to exciting places.

“When children are asked questions in an inquiry based way, it affects how they approach future problems,” says Dr. Mark Hertle, Senior Program Office for Precollege Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “They look at things and search for how best to pry out the answer. They become the adults who are experimenting with new recipes and constantly learning new things.”

Beyond the ‘right’ answer.
While we may ask the right question, equally important for our children’s development is accepting their answers. Giving your child a chance to explain herself more fully without judgment or constant correction will be a key component in gaining confidence in her own learning and exploration.

As parents, it’s sometimes hard to be able to accept that the ‘right’ answer isn’t always the one we were looking for. When questions are truly spontaneous and natural and have elicited a thoughtful conclusion (even if it wasn’t what we would consider ‘right’), instead of correcting their observation, we can respond with “That’s really interesting; I hadn’t thought of that.” or “Thank you. I understand.” A simple acknowledgment can be all they really need to further their thinking.

The balancing act.
As a parent looking to ‘seize teachable moments’, it’s easy to go overboard in the question asking department. We want our kids to be thoughtful but may end up overloading them with “What did you build?”, “What are you cooking?” or “Can you tell me about your drawing?” So as not to overwhelm your learners or put words in their mouths, try varying your questions with statements about what you observe them doing, allowing space for them to elaborate where they feel comfortable. Say things like “What an interesting structure you have constructed”, “I see you have been working in your kitchen,” or “What a wonderful use of color!”

Learning to ask questions is in fact an art. Bringing thoughtfulness to this neglected art, we can help nurture our children’s creativity and allow critical thinking to bubble to the surface. After all, in the words of the poet E.E. Cummings, “Always the more beautiful answer who asks the more beautiful question.”

Ginger Carlson, MA Ed, is a speaker, education consultant, and the author of Child of Wonder: Nurturing Creative and Naturally Curious Children (Common Ground Press 2008). She leads creativity-building workshops throughout the US for parents and educators. Please visit her at http://www.gingercarlson.com to learn more, see her blogs about living creatively and cooking with children, or sign up for Wonderwise, her free newsletter.

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