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HOW TO ASK QUESTIONS

Methods

QUESTIONS

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

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.”

WHY ARE QUESTIONS 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 yet, 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.

Educate the Whole Child

Spiritual Development
Marlene Peterson, founder of The Well-Educated Heart, presents a strong argument that we must educate both 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 the whole child.

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?’”

Cognitive Development
“It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.”
—Pierre-Marc-Gaston, duc de Lévis (1764–1830)

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: 

  1. Children must actually be asking the questions
  2. They must have a desire for an answer
  3. They should receive informative answers (either through secondary or primary sources)
  4. 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. 

HOW TO UTILIZE QUESTIONS

Use Real Books and Real Things

Susan Engel of Williams College did an experiment with two sets of teachers: one group was not given specific guidelines on how to teach a science class, while the other group was “subtly encouraged” to follow a worksheet. The first group of teachers tended to respond with interest and encouragement when students expressed their own ideas or asked questions. The second group said things like, “wait a minute; that’s not on the instructions.” From the results of this study, Engel concluded that “teachers are very susceptible to external influences; their understanding  of the goal of teaching directly affects how they respond when children spontaneously investigate.”

The materials we use (curriculum, textbooks, objects, etc.) affect our students directly and indirectly by influencing how we interact with them. This couldn’t be more obvious than in how we address children’s questions. For example, in the article “ Children’s Questions: a Mechanism for Cognitive Development” the authors point out that “…the type of stimulus materials used has an impact on the questions children ask; children are less likely to ask deep conceptual questions when looking at drawings or replicas of objects than when looking at the real thing.” When it comes to teaching materials, less is more. When we simplify education, kids have to ask more and consequently, think more.

Simplifying education and focusing on inquiry skills isn’t a new concept; Charlotte Mason warned us about using textbooks and direct-instruction as the majority of our teaching material. She said,

 “Too much faith is commonly placed in oral lessons and lectures… ‘not exhilarating to any soul’; neither is it exhilarating to have every difficulty explained to weariness, or to have the explanation teased out of one by questions….Oral lessons have their occasional use, and when they are fitly given it is the children who ask the questions. Perhaps it is not wholesome or quite honest for a teacher to pose as a source of all knowledge and to give ‘lovely’ lessons. Such lessons are titillating for the moment, but they give children the minimum of mental labour, and the result is much the same as that left on older persons by the reading of a magazine. (School Education, pp. 226-227, emphasis added)

Open-Ended Questions

When teachers do ask questions, the quality and quantity matter. Closed questions require only one answer, and this immediately puts pressure on the student to remember the right one, or attempt to read the teacher’s mind to figure out what he or she wants from the student. In a Harvard Business Review article called “The Surprising Power of Questions,” we learn of a better way to ask questions:

“No one likes to feel interrogated—and some types of questions can force answerers into a yes-or-no corner. Open-ended questions can counteract that effect and thus can be particularly useful in uncovering information or learning something new. Indeed, they are wellsprings of innovation—which is often the result of finding the hidden, unexpected answer that no one has thought of before.” 

Here is the advice Mason gives in regards to instruction and questions:

“They [children] weary of talk, and questions bore them, so that they should be allowed to use their books for themselves; they will ask for such help as they wish for. (Toward a Philosophy of Education, p. 19)

“… given the right book, it must not be diluted with talk or broken up with questions, but given to the boy in fit portions as wholesome meat for his mind, in the full trust that a child’s mind is able to deal with its proper food.” (Home Education, p. 232)

In general, children should be asking most of the questions and teachers should ask questions in moderation. We do not need to interrupt the reading to ask if the child knows what a word means; we trust that they will ask if they want to know. 

Socratic Discussion

A good discussion often begins with a good question—one that invites people to think deeply about the subject. When we ask open-ended questions and start discussions, we are nurturing an important type of learning called  “convergent thinking.” It requires the mind to take seemingly unrelated ideas and synthesize them, discover patterns, or converge ideas together to make new ones.

The type of questions you ask depends on your purpose. These are three types of questions I have found extremely useful in my own home. 

Synthetic Synthetic questions do not probe for specific details; they invite the child to relate the current material to other knowledge. To synthesize, or synthesis, means to combine into a coherent whole. Synthetic questions do not require a child to “break apart” her knowledge to find one random piece. Rather, they encourage her to “draw together” what she knows, looking for connections. Examples of synthetic questions include:

How is X like/different from Y?

What does this remind you of?

Introspective:  Ask children questions that encourage them to evaluate their behavior and commitment to their beliefs. These questions naturally encourage “metacognition” which simply means to think about one’s cognition (i.e. thought process, thinking). 

“If there must be riddles, let it be his to ask and the teachers to direct him to the answer. Questions that lead to a side issue or to a personal view are allowable because these interest children – ‘what would you have done in his place?’” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pg 228)

Should he/she have done that?

What would you have done in his/her place?

Narrative: This is the most open-ended of all the categories. It is literally asking the child to summarize what they have learned from a reading. The difficult process of convergent thinking is the important part of asking these types of questions; much more important than the actual answer you receive. 

“To determine whether class members understand a principle, try asking a question like “What have you learned about the Atonement of Jesus Christ?” A question that invites learners to state a gospel principle in their own words—especially if asked at the beginning of class—can help you assess how much time you need to spend studying that principle in class.” (Teaching in the Savior’s Way)

What have you learned about _______?

Who was __________ in this story?
(character traits such as compassionate, brave, greedy, persistent, etc) 

What is something you want to remember?

 I reserve these questions for Family Gather subjects like scripture study and read alouds, as they are best suited for discussion. I created a bookmark with these questions so they are available to me as we read. 

Don’t Be Afraid of Silence 

“Good questions take time to answer. They require pondering, searching, and inspiration. The time you spend waiting for answers to a question can be a sacred time of pondering. Avoid the temptation to end this time too soon by answering your own question or moving on to something else. Tell learners that you will give them time to ponder before they answer.” (Teaching in the Savior’s Way)

The same goes for the question formulation technique I will summarize below. It takes time to develop a habit of creative inquiry. Do not ask questions just to break the silence, do not answer your own questions, and do not give your child examples of questions to ask.

HOW TO TEACH INQUIRY

“Pursued properly, a good question also can be an excellent vehicle with which to start a process of inquiry. Investigating an answer to a question need not require a laboratory, special equipment, or money. The goal of asking and answering a question is not necessarily to probe a completely untouched area of science (which is unrealistic for K–12). Rather, it should be a personal quest to resolve a curiosity and grapple with trying to understand the answer. Furthermore, researching one question often results in a further round of questions that dig deeper into a phenomenon.” (The Value of Asking Questions)

The second type of thinking that is vital for learning is “divergent thinking.” This thinking requires the student to think of their own questions and generate new ideas. The best way I’ve found to nurture this thinking is by utilizing the Question Formula Technique from The Right Question Institute (RQI). 

This is just a summary of how I personally use technique in my homeschool, so I highly recommend you to visit the RQI website to understand how it works and see it in action. Even better, buy or borrow a copy of Make One Small Change for detailed  instructions and examples of implementing this technique in your home or classroom. 

  1. At the beginning of a lesson or topic, I write down a simple sentence or display a picture/object for the question focus. For example, you could use a statement like “Seeds travel” as the question focus, or display a variety of seeds from your nature collection.
  2. For the next five minutes, ask your child(ren) to brainstorm every question that comes to mind. There are only four simple rules: do not stop to discuss or answer the question, do not judge or evaluate, write down the question exactly as stated, and change any statement into a question. I usually write them down for my Form One age child, but older than that they should write down the questions themselves.
  3. For older children, ask them to label each question as open or closed (discuss the differences and pros and cons of both). Ask them to change a few questions, making them open- or closed. Discuss how the meaning is changed. . I was tempted to skip this step, but my five and seven year old sons really enjoyed this step. Try it out and adjust to your child’s abilities.  
  4. Finally, ask them to pick the  questions they want to pursue and find answers to. We write them on our blackboard, but you can also write them in your child’s goal booklet. These questions can be the starting point for essays, experiments, and further study. Future school lessons should focus on finding answers through observing the real thing or studying books. While we are reading a book or doing an object lesson, my boys will quickly tell me that their question is answered! This is an exciting moment for them. It is ok if you don’t always find the answer; sometimes an unanswered question is the catalyst for great discoveries. 

I can’t overstate this enough: do not jump in and give your child the answers. Let them interact with the books and things and create relationships with them; the best teaching is providing learning materials and then getting out of the way so children can ask their own questions, make observations,  and discover connections/patterns on their own. Help them find their own “treasures of knowledge.” If they seem uninterested or unsure what to look for, ask them questions to direct their attention: “what color would you call that bird’s eye?” “What do you notice?” “What does this story remind you of?” 

“For students, posing their own questions is a first step towards filling their knowledge gaps and resolving puzzlement. The process of asking questions allows them to articulate their current understanding of a topic, to make connections with other ideas, and also to become aware of what they do or do not know. In this regard, student‐generated questions are also an important aspect of both self‐ and peer‐assessment (Black, Harrison, Lee, & Marshall, 2002, p. 14). 

“The children, not the teachers, are the responsible persons; they do the work by self-effort. The teachers give sympathy and occasionally elucidate, sum up or enlarge, but the actual work is done by the scholars.” (6/6)

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 life-long learning. And one of the most important skills is asking the right questions. 

ADDITIONAL LEARNING

4 thoughts on “HOW TO ASK QUESTIONS

  1. Thanks, I enjoyed reading this and bring reminded of the importance of questions! You shared great resources, too!

    1. Thank you so much! I hope you enjoy the resources as much as I did.

  2. Love this section! Who is the author of the book you mentioned, “Make One Small Change”?

    1. Thank you! It is Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana.

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