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The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself.”Charlotte Mason. Philosophy of Education, p. 16
Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ taught in very humble circumstances all around Judea. He did not have a classroom, scripted curriculum, schedule, or resources; neither did he have a teaching degree but he is still known as the “Master Teacher.” He attracted great crowds of people to hear his words and learn from him. His disciples wrote down these teachings and experiences and we are still learning from his example to this day.
Charlotte Mason fervently studied the New Testament, having a firm testimony in Jesus Christ. She based her philosophy and methods on what she learned from the Master Teacher. What are the timeless methods Christ employed?
First, he used stories to activate his students’ hearts and minds; he used nature, concrete objects, and real life experiences to teach eternal principles (this is called apperception). Then, he asked thought-provoking questions and encouraged his students to ask their own questions. As you study the New Testament, you’ll notice that many of his sermons were based on questions that his disciples had asked.
Nurturing the habit of asking questions, using students’ questions to guide teaching material, and asking open-ended questions are powerful tools that are severely underappreciated and underused in most educational settings.
The ‘Engines of Intellect’
David Hackett Fischer, professor of history at Brandeis University, observed that questions “are the engines of intellect—cerebral machines that convert curiosity into controlled inquiry.”
Dan Rothstein, founder of the Right Question Institute, says that questioning is “an experience we’ve all had at one point or another; just asking or hearing a question phrased a certain way produces an almost palpable feeling of discovery and new understanding.” In other words, questions produce the lightbulb effect. Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, expands on that quote and says “If they [children] are permitted to do that research–to raise and explore their own questions, through various forms of experimentations, and without being burdened with instructions–they exhibit signs of more creativity and curiosity.”
Storing and providing information is robotic; it does not take higher intelligence to perform. Computers can be filled with information to be retrieved when needed. However, computers are incapable of the creativity of formulating meaningful questions. While Albert Einstein was being interviewed for a newspaper article, the journalist asked him for his phone number for follow-up questions. Einstein picked up a phonebook and searched for his number to give to the man. The journalist was flabbergasted and wondered why one of the most brilliant men in the world didn’t know his own phone number, and he asked Einstein why this was. Einstein simply said, “never memorize something that you can look up.”
Questions are Important
Albert Einstein didn’t believe the intellect should be used up memorizing information. Instead, he believed it should be used to ask questions and wonder. He famously said “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to comprehend only a little of this mystery every day.”
Asking questions is also known as inquiry, research, and seeking. All of those words are used regularly in education and in the scriptures. Let’s take a moment to think about what happens in the mind when it forms a question:
First, the person must come across an idea, but realize there is a gap in their knowledge because they don’t understand something of that idea. In developmental psychology, this is known as “disequilibrium.” The person will identify what information they are missing and formulate a question in their mind. Next, they seek an answer in one of two ways: by generating a new idea (i.e. forming hypotheses) or by seeking to answer a question by experimentation, usually through the five senses.
The mind then takes this new information and processes, synthesizes, and analyzes it,then moves toward a conclusion. Interestingly, this is usually in the form of narration. When a person asks a question and discovers the answer (or makes new connections), they are eager to share that knowledge with anyone willing to listen.
Inquiry is Natural for Children
Jesus’s disciples asked him many questions, and his sermons were usually based on their questions. One question in particular reveals Jesus’ attitude toward learning and curiosity. The disciples asked:
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:3)
In response, Jesus called a little child to him, set him in the midst of the adults, and said, “verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
There are many reasons why we should become like little children, but I believe it is because of their innate humility and curiosity. Around the age of four or five years old, children ask incessant questions. On average, they ask one hundred questions a day! If you’re like me, there are some days you wish it would stop, Tragically, it does stop.
Soon after elementary school, children mostly stop asking questions, and motivation and engagement in school also decrease dramatically. In other words, there is a strong correlation between asking questions and engagement in school (A More Beautiful Question). Boyd K Packer pointed out this relationship in his book Teach Ye Diligently; he said, “children’s questions are an indication they are ready to learn.” (pg 135)
Curiosity is Catalyst for Learning
Traditional education focuses too heavily on information input, things that can be measured on a multiple-choice test. Though it may be useful and necessary to memorize some things (times tables, formulas, beloved scriptures, poetry, etc) the human mind is capable of much higher intellectual abilities than simply storing information. In fact, when The New York Times asked several college presidents what students should gain from four years of college, it was not to retain a certain amount of knowledge or graduate with a high test score. The most common answer was to gain skills, one of which was the ability to inquire:
“The primary skills should be analytical skills of interpretation and inquiry.”
(Leon Botstein, Bard College)
“The best we can do for students is to have them ask the right questions”
(Nancy Cantor, Syracuse University)
Education should really be founded on a student’s questions, on things they don’t know but have a desire to know.
When the teacher instructs, lectures, and asks the questions, it puts the child in a passive role. When a child asks the questions, he is put in the active role. Heavenly Father created His children to be curious, active agents in their life and education. Unfortunately, teaching our children to be active participants in the learning process is an important skill that is not taught in traditional learning environments. Why are schools and parents not prioritizing this skill more?
First, most of us are products of traditional education and direct instruction; we have no idea how to learn by asking our own questions. We wait for a person in authority to teach us, then ask us questions to test comprehension. Second, states have a long list of learning objectives that need to be met. School ratings are based on test scores, and if the learning objectives are not met, the school drops its rating and potentially lowers its funding.
As much as they’d like to, it is difficult for teachers to allow students to ask the questions; what if they don’t ask the right questions? What if they aren’t curious about the material that “needs” to be taught at that time? Allowing children to ask the questions leaves too much up to chance; it is messy and unpredictable, but it is also beautiful and the most powerful way to learn.
Ronald Vale, a scientist and professor at the University of California, explains why he believes questions are not prioritized in traditional school settings:
“Several cultural factors present barriers. First is the perception that the teacher is an almighty vessel of knowledge who imparts information to students. In that formulation, a difficult question with no immediate answer or an uncertain answer can be threatening to a teacher and disappointing to a student. However, that view is unfair to teachers. Teachers also need to be students. A teacher should feel completely comfortable saying, ‘I do not know the answer to that question, but let me look it up—or let’s look it up together.’ Many questions do not have quick, easy answers and thus become seeds for investigation. Students also should be able to teach their peers when they look up an answer to a question. In this model, teachers and students become partners in their mutual education.”
Charlotte Mason was also an advocate for this approach to learning, and warned against parents and teachers viewing themselves as the “showman of the universe.”
Inquiry is a Creativity Act
“Questioning is an integral part of meaningful learning and scientific inquiry. The formulation of a good question is a creative act, and at the heart of what doing science is all about.” (Students’ questions: a potential resource for teaching and learning science)
We are able to measure creativity using the Torrance test. Ever since the 1950’s, people from each generation have been voluntarily tested for intelligence and creativity. Interestingly, since the 1990’s, intelligence scores have gone up by about 10 points with each generation, but creativity has started going down with each generation. As a society we put high value on educating the mind, but we are neglecting the heart.
Educating the Whole Child
Marlene Peterson, founder of The Well-Educated Heart, presents a strong argument that we must educate the heart and the mind. Her site is dedicated to teaching mothers how to educate their children’s hearts through music, nature, art and literature. The heart is synonymous with the spirit of a person: the traits of imagination, curiosity, and creativity. Instilling a habit of inquiry is one way to educate both the heart and the mind.
One of my favorite teaching resources, Teaching in the Savior’s Way, explains more about how the Savior utilized inquiry:
“When the Savior taught, He did more than just share information. He gave His disciples opportunities to ask questions and share their testimonies. His pattern for teaching and learning invites us to ‘teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom’ so that ‘all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege’ (pg 122).
Heavenly Father wants His children to become wise, intelligent, and creative; and we can only reach our full potential by learning how to inquire and seek truth. We are all equal in his eyes, and everyone (especially children) have something to contribute. It is easy to see this truth by looking for patterns in the scriptures. In them you’ll find many words synonymous with questioning, like inquire, seek, and ask.
“And if thou wilt inquire, thou shalt know mysteries which are great and marvelous;” (D&C 6:11)
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:” (Matthew 7:7)
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5)
“For he truly spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought.” (1 Nephi 15:3)
In an address to students at BYU, Cecil O. Samuelson remarked on the profound importance of inquiry in spiritual progression: “Ours is a gospel of questions, and our lives in all of their spheres require thoughtful and appropriate inquiry if we are going to progress. The question is not whether we should ask questions, but rather, ‘what are the questions we should be asking?’”
“It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.”Pierre-Marc-Gaston
The mind can only learn when it is an active participant. Asking questions is difficult and requires mental strength. Stanley Boardmen, headmaster of a Parent Union School in England, acknowledged the important role inquiry plays in cognitive development by saying, “we know that a child can indeed follow a series of questions and can with some confidence suggest a series of answers. But don’t you think the real mental effort, the visualising of the whole, has been that of the teacher?” (Boardman, Stanley. op. cit., pp. 469-470.)
Developmental psychologist Michael M Chouinard, explains in his article “Children’s Questions: a Mechanism for Cognitive Development” that for cognitive development to occur, these four things must happen:
- Children must actually be asking the questions
- They must have a desire for an answer
- They should receive informative answers (either through secondary or primary sources)
- Their questions and answers must be applicable and meaningful in their lives
In a future article, I will explain how to use children’s questions as the springboard for further research, projects, and real-world application.
Inquiry is a Habit
If you’ve been a student of Charlotte Mason for even a short amount of time, you’ll be familiar with “habit training.” Teaching your child to ask questions is an important habit that must be nurtured, and a certain atmosphere is required for children to feel safe asking questions. Robert Sternberg, an avid researcher and psychologist reinforces this truth–
“Creativity is a habit… It may sound paradoxical that creativity—a novel response—is a habit—a routine response. But creative people are creative largely not by any particular inborn trait, but rather, because of an attitude toward life: They habitually respond to problems in fresh and novel ways, rather than allowing themselves to respond mindlessly and automatically.” (Robert Sternberg)
Other professionals–researchers, educators, and psychologists–echo this fact:
“You can’t expect to wake up one morning and run a marathon without training. Similarly, asking good questions is a skill that requires practice, training, and mentoring. If a child (or adult) is placed in an environment that does not encourage active questioning, then that skill will not become an active habit of mind.” (Ronald Vale, “The Value of Asking Questions”)
“University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung has concluded that those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better. A lifetime of consistent habits gradually changes the neurological pattern.” (The Creativity Crisis, Newsweek)
The aim of education should not be spoon-feeding information to our students; it should be developing habits of learning and creativity. And one of the most important skills is asking the right questions.