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The Science of Asking Questions - Issue 143
March 12, 2010
Hi there! ....

This week We had our homeschool co-op this week. We have a group of 10 families – 36 kids! We get together once a month during ‘school term’. We have three time slots to our morning together – Character lesson, Oral Presentations, and a learning opportunity and then we just visit with each other. This month we had a few nature activities which went so well we are thinking of focusing on simple nature study type exercises as our activity for the whole year. The purpose of our co-op is relationships – we are a group of mothers who get together in support of our family learning. It is always a time of fun and encouragement for both mums and kids.

Live life with your kids!

The Science of Asking Questions

Our children understand the value of asking questions, probably better than we do. They ask questions if they want to know something, if they want to challenge you or even if they just want to push your buttons. Asking questions is a powerful learning tool and if we as parents harness this tool we will find our children thinking and learning for themselves.

Our children have so much to learn in every facet of their being – spiritual, moral, emotional, academic, and physical. Initially our children are like sponges – they soak it all in. But we want our children to become thinking people, involved in their learning beyond just listening and following instructions. Questions will help us get our children there.

Education is more than filling a child with facts.
It starts with posing questions.
~ D.T. Max

Keep in mind:

  1. As a parent we have a choice – we can tell our child, or we can question our child. Please note, questioning our child is a tool – at no time does it completely remove the responsibility we have of instructing our children. Different purposes – different tools.
  2. To simplify things in our house I often separate learning into two categories – knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge tends to be the practical information side of learning, and wisdom describes the spiritual or moral aspects, as well as the applied side of learning. Many lessons our children have to learn contain both aspects and questions work for both concerns. The head and the heart can be stretched and matured by the idea of asking questions.
  3. I think the reason questions are so powerful is that they can lead to conversations, conversations develop relationships. When we take the time to ask questions of our children, we are telling our children that we want to talk this through with them, that they are important, that we enjoy their thinking, and that we too are learning. Our children learn so much when we have conversations. Our goal isn’t just to ask sterile questions, think about answers and move on. No, the idea is to ask good questions that generate conversations that ultimately improve our relationships.
  4. Know your purpose – we don’t want to ask mindless questions – what is it you want your child to learn in the conversation? Do you want him to learn thinking/reasoning skills? Do you want him to be able to articulate the things he has learnt? Do you want him to think through a situation? Know your purpose.
  5. Stay focused – even if the child waffles – listen carefully - they may say something that takes you totally by surprise. They may know more than you think, or they may reveal their heart in a way you never expected. Though we need to have our purpose, our greater purpose is to see our children learn and to develop our relationship with them. Be flexible (have a purpose but not a solid agenda).
  6. Don’t ask rhetorical questions – ask a question, expect an answer
  7. Don’t answer questions for them. The idea of asking questions is to get your child to think the answers. We short circuit the learning opportunity by answering questions for them. We may need to break down our question into a few leading questions, guiding their thinking. If they say they can’t answer you need to discern if it is a distraction technique on their behalf or if they honestly don’t know the answer. Your response needs to be appropriate in this situation.

There are two types of questions

  1. Closed questions – these are for discovering facts or information. Not a lot of discussion is required. The other aspect of a closed question is one that requires a simple yes or no answer – such as questions started with Did, Can or Are. These may have their place but you won’t touch your child’s thinking or their heart, and you won’t deepen your relationship with closed questions.
  2. Open questions – these questions generate conversation (once our children feel comfortable answering them!) We look for opinions, solutions, ideas, original thought when we ask open questions. We use openers such as What, How, Who, When and Why.

Good questioning words:

  • What do you think about?
  • What would be right?
  • What would happen next?
  • Why would that happen?
  • Why did that happen?
  • How does that work?
  • How do you know that?
  • Can you tell me more?

Situations for Questions

  • When our children express opinions, we can question them for more information. This helps our children form solid opinions and helps us understand their thinking.
  • When our children are processing a moral dilemma – a question will help them process and internalise what is right
  • When our children are learning facts our questioning can solidify their learning.
  • When our children need to complete an action (do the right thing) our questions can help them think what is right without us having to tell them.
  • When there are problems to solve, our questions can help break down the steps, once again removing our need to tell the child what to do, and consequently empowering them in thinking of a solution.
  • When we want to get to know what our child is thinking about an ethical situation – this helps them establish their world view.

Good purposes for asking questions:

  • To justify, explain their opinion, or stance
  • To reflect
  • To encourage further investigation
  • To sort and clarify
  • To provoke thought

The benefits for asking questions:
Though questions can be confronting (so we need to learn to watch our tone and facial expressions) they truly do fast track learning – either ethical or practical because the person who has to answer the question has to think. If we just fill our children with information which they don’t think about and interact with it will never be their own. The second, but probably biggest benefit of asking our children questions is that they get into the habit of hearing and answering questions so that they start asking themselves questions. Imagine, as we read a story to our children and we consistently ask them what lesson they learnt from the main character (for example), eventually they will ask themselves this question – this leads to self-directed learning. This is so true with moral issues too – if we constantly ask your children what is the right thing to do, they will find themselves asking the same question when they are by themselves.

As you interact with your family this week, I encourage you to balance your instruction with asking questions. Often your children already know what you are telling anyway, so when we hold back from a lecture and question instead, our children have the opportunity to interact with what they have already learnt, and start to think it through and apply it to their life. This is a central goal as parents – thinking children!

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Until next week

Belinda Letchford
Living life with her kids in Australia!

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