Questions lie at the heart of all learning. At the most basic level, questions express curiosity and desire for knowledge. At a deeper level, questions invite dialogue and collaboration. In so doing, they become a window into the mind, a way to uncover the intentions and assumptions of the one asking a question. Above all, questions challenge us to think. Questions provide an opportunity to re-examine what we take for granted, to solve problems creatively and collaboratively, and to see life in a new way.
When educators celebrate questions and recognize children’s competence to discover answers to their own questions, then children feel more empowered and invested in learning. This is why so often the best way to answer a question is simply not to answer the question — to turn the question back to the child: “That’s an interesting question. What do you think?” Those who learn to rely on others for answers and solutions, unfortunately, do not fulfill their true intellectual potential, for then the learning is not coming from within oneself.
Given the essential role that questions play in learning, it is important that we understand the nature of a question and the different kinds of questions people ask.
The Nature of a Question
A question is not just a question. Every question is based on a premise from which the question emerges — the “real question” behind the question. A question is ultimately answered by addressing its underlying premise, by addressing the intent of the one asking the question, for it is possible to answer a question without actually answering the person! This means that we need to consider and investigate what’s behind a question before we can give an appropriate answer. Let’s see this process in action, using examples of the three most common types of questions.
Question of Curiosity – The purpose of this question is to gain knowledge (without seeking a specific answer)
Example 1a: Close-Ended
QUESTION: How do computers work?
INTENT: I want to know more about computers.
APPROPRIATE ANSWER: Explanation of how computers work.
Example 1b: Open-ended
THE QUESTION: What do you like about working with computers?
INTENT: I want to know more about you.
APPROPRIATE ANSWER: Explanation of personal interest in computers.
Question of Want or Need: The purpose of this question is to gain knowledge due to a specific want or need.
QUESTION: Do all classrooms in this school have computers?
INTENT: I don’t want my child watching videos at school.
APPROPRIATE ANSWER: Yes, but they are primarily for teacher use.
QUESTION: Are the two pizzas we’re bringing with us to the birthday party for everyone or just for us?
INTENT: Will there be enough pizza for me?
APPROPRIATE ANSWER: I’m not sure, but if you’re concerned you may not have enough to eat, don’t worry, I’ll make sure you do!
Question of Challenge: The purpose of this question is to understand something that does not currently make sense to the one asking.
QUESTION: How does the soul go up to heaven after the body goes into the ground?
PREMISE: The soul and body comprise a unit and do not separate after death.
APPROPRIATE ANSWER: Since the soul is not physical, it is distinct from the body, and can therefore leave the body after death.
The Two Ways Questions Get Asked
Verbal questions begin in thought and become expressed in speech. So if someone asks us “How do I turn on this computer?” they are both thinking and speaking the question.
Non-verbal questions also begin in thought, but unlike verbal questions, they are expressed through behavior (e.g. a baby shaking a rattle may be asking the question “What happens when I move this object up and down?” or a toddler building with blocks may be asking the question “How tall can I make this tower?”). As we watch a child playing we should therefore ask ourselves “What questions does he have?” or “What is she trying to figure out?” so we can respond appropriately.
Motionless and Alive: A Case Study on Responding to a Question
A four-year old child points to a squirrel perched motionless on a tree trunk and asks “Why did the squirrel die?”
Before responding we ought to take a few seconds to reflect upon the child’s question by asking ourselves “What is the premise of the child’s question?” In these few moments we give ourselves time to try to understand the child’s current understanding of the situation. In this case, the child’s premise might be a mistaken (though developmentally appropriate) assumption that “Things that once moved but are no longer moving are dead.”
Now that we think we understand the child’s premise we may simply choose to wait for the squirrel to move so the squirrel answers the child’s own question. If the squirrel moves, we may follow up with a comment about the squirrel’s movement like “Look! He moved!” The child might respond a few seconds later “He was dead but now he’s alive again,” exposing the child’s current understanding that death is temporary. Ideally, the educator will not correct the child by saying something like “But squirrels cannot come back to life,” for the child may not be able to understand that idea, and then we might have taken away the child’s authentic (and inevitable) discovery that absence of movement is part of being alive, an abstract idea which a four year old may already know within a particular context (e.g. someone who is sleeping is still alive) but has not yet generalized across situations.
The educator may not, however, choose to wait for the squirrel to move, or if the squirrel does not move after several seconds, the educator may consider turning the initial question back to the child by saying “That’s an interesting question, Jake. What do you think happened?” At that point the child may answer “I think he fell down.” At this point the educator may pursue the child’s current line of reasoning (keeping the child’s initial premise in mind) by saying “Did you ever fall down?” to which the child may answer “Yes, but I got back up.” This exchange may provide sufficient information for the child to alter his initial premise (i.e. that something which does not move is dead) depending on the child’s ability to transfer logic from one situation to another.
There is no guarantee where the process of inquiry will lead, nor is there one right path of inquiry in a particular situation. The main goal is to listen carefully to what a child is saying by engaging a child’s questions and taking time to reflect upon the underlying meaning in order to further the child’s understanding.
Once a child changes his underlying premise through his own explorations and thinking, in this case reaching the understanding that “Things which are alive can stop moving and then move again,” then the initial question disappears as though it were never there. Thus, we can answer children’s questions by refraining from giving them the right answer and rather leading them there. Our most important role is to nurture the capacity of children to grapple with ideas and problems in order to reach deeper understandings with their own mind.