Monday, March 25, 2013

Asking Questions

I have written in many places about the centrality of questions to the work we do, and the importance generally of children learning to ask good questions and trusting that their questions are valuable.


Almost all very young children are alive with questions; they seem to naturally apprehend that this is the way to investigate and understand the world. At some point, however, most children absorb the message that questions are often not particularly welcome. They learn that having a question means that there is something they should have already grasped but have not. Asking questions publicly broadcasts what they don't know, and this has the potential to be somewhat shameful, or at least embarrassing. And so they go silent. Walk into a sixth grade classroom, and it’s obvious that students pose questions with a tentativeness absent in kindergarten.

However, the ability to construct good questions is indispensable for navigating one’s way through contemporary life. Developing confidence and skill in questioning allows children to evaluate critically the constant flood of information that bombards them, gather what they need to make good decisions, and convey what gaps remain in their understanding of particular topics or situations. The more accomplished a child becomes at framing good questions, the more able he or she will be to think clearly and competently for herself.

Engaging children in conversations in which their questions are central, and encouraging them to articulate what led to their questions, is vital for helping children develop the ability to formulate and pose clear and articulate questions. Often a considerable part of a philosophy session with children will be spent listing the children's questions and then choosing which question(s) to discuss. It can be easy, sometimes, in the goal-driven society in which we live, to see this part of the session as a precursor to the real work, the philosophy discussion itself. Indeed, when I first began doing philosophy in pre-college classrooms, I was often impatient about the time it took to get all the students’ questions on the board and decide what to discuss.

I've come to understand, however, that the time spent helping students to formulate their own questions and ensuring that the discussion starts with those questions is in the end just as valuable as the time spent actually talking about them. For one thing, learning to articulate questions in a clear way, so that your question accurately describes whatever it is that’s puzzling you, is an important skill that can only be developed with experience. Moreover, devoting time to listing and analyzing the students’ questions lets the students know that asking questions is itself a valuable practice, quite apart from the discussion of them (let alone answering them).

An organization about which I've recently become aware, The Right Question Institute, notes that asking questions is an essential skill for all learning, and its website has many resources for helping students construct good questions. My colleague, Amy Reed-Sandoval, has written about using the organization's "Question Formulation Technique" in a philosophy session with children: http://amyreedsandoval.com/2013/03/20/teach-students-to-ask-their-own-questions/

So much of primary and secondary education emphasizes knowing the answers, as if we had utter clarity about the meaning of most aspects of life. But, as philosopher Matthew Lipman once noted, it is when our knowledge of the world is revealed to be “ambiguous, equivocal, and mysterious,” that students are most inspired to think about the world. Questions are the keys to articulating that ambiguity and mystery. Philosophy can illuminate for children how vital questions are to examining the world in which we live and our place in it, and help them to cultivate their inclinations to question.


2 comments:

Lief said...

Thanks Jana,
As I forge on with my new class I will keep this bit of advice from MAKING me move on...the journey of the questions may be enough for a while, as well as training for the "answers". :)

In my professional life as an analyst and an architect of business, asking "Why" is particularly important, and constant. I will read through your suggestions through that lense as well.

Thought provoking post.

Hollis Evon Ramsey said...

i've been saying, mantra-like, for quite some time that it's essential for public-school students to learn two skills: critical thinking and proper question formation. those skills will keep even the youngest humans safe from reckless indoctrination, such as that seen in documentaries like JESUS CAMP and randomly, thoughtlessly shared with children by well-meaning yet unthinking fellow humans who don't respect individual autonomy.

i hold organized religion to blame here. in an environment dominated by religious thinking, answers are given primacy over questions. it's no surprise that, as children grow older, their enthusiastic Why? and What for? questions get swallowed and/or stifled by the prevailing socially negative attitude towards the act of asking, of admitting that you don't know something. religion conveniently steps in to provide answers, oftentimes where science is still asking questions but has as yet not been able to provide satisfactory answers. "not yet" doesn't mean "never." religion is always happy to step in ASAP to provide the "because god" answer, which is really not a legitimate answer at all.

there is so much wrong in devaluing science; it's flat-out dangerous. just look at what it's doing to our environment, our food supply, the quality of our drinking water and breathable air, etc. to preach that there was a great flood, caused by a judgmental and omnipotent deity, that an ark was built that held all living creatures, from all parts of the world, and to audaciously include dinosaurs in the passenger list ... well, it OUGHT to be beyond belief, yet it isn't. words like "logic," "reason," and "why" are looked at askance. instead, our so-called intelligentsia are saving their praise for words like "belief," "faith," and "unconditional obedience." it is, as the chorus in Hamilton: the Musical sings, "the world turned upside-down."

i am so happy to have found Philosophy, Speculative Fiction (i have a site devoted to the Golden Age of Speculative Fiction, c. 1930s-1960s, with a few outliers, comprised of 27 short stories, novelettes, and even three short-ish novels, an anthology called PRESCIENCE, at https://presciencesf.blogspot.com), P4C, and the internet! i am living in my future and am well aware of it. i am reveling in its scientifically-induced "miracles" and chafing at its vicissitudes. it is obvious to me that the only thing that can save us from our own self-induced implosion is the introduction of Philosophy as a major subject into the American public school curriculum, K-12. i "preach" this viewpoint constantly, but i know i should do more.