I’m sure all of us have, at one point or another, been a victim of the ‘why’ game. You know, when someone asks you a question and you give and answer and the other person just keeps asking ‘why’ until you blow up because you don’t have a rationale for the meaning of life or our existence in this universe.
The why game is typically played by very small children, and there is a reason for that. According to Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question, “a child asks about forty thousand questions between the ages of two and five.” What happens after that? The questions just stop.
As a high school teacher, this got me thinking about the way that I use questioning in my own classroom. I used to pride myself on being able to ask higher order thinking questions that stimulate classroom discussions – I’ve often had students and colleagues tell me I ask good questions – but after reading Berger’s book, I don’t think I’m using questions the correct way in my classroom.
When I ask students questions, I am generally trying to get them to think about a specific aspect of the content or lead them in a particular direction – but that’s not the point of questioning. The point of questioning is inquiry, and the point of inquiry is to learn. As Berger points out, “when we start teaching too much, too soon, says Gopnik, we’re inadvertently cutting off paths of inquiry and exploration that kids might otherwise pursue on their own.” This statement stopped me in my tracks, and really made me think about how I was using questioning in my classroom.
I realized that I use questions to guide students where I want them to go – I’m steering the conversation – I am not using questions to foster inquiry because students are so concerned about getting to the ‘right’ answer (or the answer they think I want to hear). I, subconsciously, also plan what I am expecting to hear in my head and try to guide students to that destination. After reading Berger’s book, however, I know that my outlook and implementation of questioning needs to change if I have any hope of fostering an environment of inquiry amongst my students.
To change this structure a change in mindset and a change in practice must occur. When I was training to be a teacher, we were well instructed in the types of questions to ask and the levels of questioning and even how to use questions to prompt students to give fuller, more in-depth responses. What I have noticed, however, is that all of the focus of questioning is on the answer and not the question.
“Somehow, we’ve defined the goal of schooling as enabling you to have more ‘right answers’ than the person next to you. And we penalize incorrect answers” (Berger, 2014).
So what do we do? Change the way we approach questioning. Too often you see the teacher as the only one asking questions, but why? As Berger points out, “you don’t have to know the answer to ask a question.” I thought this was an interesting concept. Too often students are trained that questions have answers and if you don’t know the answer, you shouldn’t ask the question – but this is just wrong.
We, as educators, need to teach students to ask questions and not just answer them. We need to let children play the ‘why’ game and not scold them for doing so. We need to step back as the knowledge authority and let students inquire on their own. We need to change the way we question.
Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.