The power of ‘why?’

Niketa Bakshi

“Don’t just teach your kids to read, teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.”George Carlin (American comedian, philosopher, social critic)

Growing up in a middle class Indian family, I was always told not to question my elders, not to argue with them, to always do as told. And I dutifully obeyed.

Most kids, however, are brimming with questions so much so that it can be exhausting to keep up and as an adult I have found that many a times, the questions are pure genius and I have no answers. I remember one of my students asking me,
“Didi if orange is a fruit that is orange in colour then why isn’t red called apple?”

Another time we were standing in a circle as planets and I was teaching the kids rotation and revolution by moving them around. Then we saw a video of the solar system, the kids had so many questions, some of them

“Didi, why does the space look dark?”
“What was there before big bang?”
I had answers for a few, none for the others.

My kids come from financially under resourced backgrounds. All of them are first generation learners. They are 7 and 8 years old and have very limited exposure.

The solar system activity was done when they had just entered 3rd grade. Before this activity, all my kids wanted to become teachers. After the video, when the kids realized that I did not have answers to many of their questions about space, they asked me, “Didi, do you think someone could tell us more about space?”

I said yes, scientists and people who have studied more physics than I have would be able to answer a lot more if not all their questions. After this conversation, most of my kids wanted to become scientists.

How did my kids start asking so many questions? When I first entered their classroom, I asked the kids to ask me any questions they might have. This request was met with a stony silence, as it was probably the first time that an adult was telling them to ask questions.

I then asked them for their favourite food and the name of their native place, and then told them they could ask me similar questions. Kids are generally curious by nature, but the hard life they face beats the curiosity out of them. One of my goals was to rekindle their curiosity and to sustain it – getting them to question was one of the ways I decided to go about it.

Teaching kids how to question was easier said than done. I soon realized, it needed a lot of planning and strong pedagogical practices. However, by trial and error, I realized that teaching 2nd graders or 8th graders or adults to question required similar skills and mindset, of course adjusted for rigor.

We started with kids asking very basic questions from the text they were reading. One very unexpected advantage of this was that the kids’ comprehension of the text increased as one partner asked questions and another answered before they switched; their scores in reading comprehension jumped massively.

I realized as an educator that asking questions is as much a habit as it is a skill and mindset. It needs to be built and nurtured until it is strong enough to sustain. As I have been teaching kids how to ask questions, I have been learning to be a better questioner myself.

One huge tangible benefit of asking questions is that it improves academic scores. How? Because, the students’ comprehension and depth of the topic increases.

I have tried many ways of making questioning a part of my students’ lives. One simple way to start was to give them worksheets with answers and ask them to write the questions.

One example is given below

Question: ________________________________________________
Answer: It is 5.

Question: ________________________________________________
Answer: Very happy

Question: ________________________________________________
Answer: Because she did not invite me to her party.

Question: ________________________________________________
Answer: 28.

A few additional tips as to how this skill can be built are outlined below.

Sample script (elementary kids)

“Who likes to play teacher-teacher?” Today, you have the chance to do what a teacher does when she is teaching in class.

Tell the children that they will work in pairs and one of them will be the teacher and ask questions to the other who is the student.

Knowledge of the words who, what, where, why and when (5 whys).
Vocabulary that kids should know – wolf, sheep, bored, screaming, villagers.

Do a think-aloud on a separate text (Think-aloud is when you verbalize your thoughts in order to model it for the students.)
I chose “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”.

This was the paragraph I read to the kids:
“There was once a boy who lived in a village. He was watching his sheep graze. He was bored and wanted to have fun, so he started screaming, “Wolf, wolf; the wolf will take the sheep away.”

The villagers came running. But there was no wolf.”

Ask the kids what questions their didi would ask them. Take responses. My kids came up with questions like
• Who is the main character?
• What is the meaning of bored?
• How many characters are there?
(These are the questions I usually ask them.)

Tell your students that they can ask questions whose answers can be found in the story and also related questions for which the answers cannot be found in the story.

After this more questions came in like
“What will happen next?” and voila! The skill of prediction was introduced.

We took this a step further and I asked the kids to think if they were the boy’s mother what questions they would ask him.

Then I told them that what they did was imagine. The mother wasn’t in the story, I just imagined what she would say, similarly did they want to imagine about anything else that wasn’t in the story? Predictably, the kids said father – what would the father say? Another child came up with, “What else could the boy do so he wasn’t bored?”

This opened up the idea of thinking and imagining for them and facilitated a deeper engagement with the text.

Over time, this has evolved. After engaging with any text, the children now use the format of I know, I think, I wonder.

They note down answers in this format and then create questions for “I wonder”, where they let their imagination go wild.

I now use rigorous text with the children, gave them this first chapter of sapiens and asked them to write questions other than the ones whose answers can be found in the text.

This is the passage I gave and some of the responses are attached below.

(Chapter 1 of the book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Hariri)

Below are some of the questions one of my students thought of

Knowledge and information in the age of the Internet is procured far more easily than when I was a child. If we can get children to ask effective questions, it results in the building of self-dependence, while searching for answers on the Internet is not as easy as it seems, that is also something that can be taught to children and it is something we are working on continuously ourselves as well as with our children.

Over the last five years, I have seen my students go places and I attribute a large part of this to their innate hard work and capacity to ask questions, to hold on to questions to which no cut and dry answer is available and to get answers to their many questions.

The author is an educator as well as a social and emotional learning coach, currently working with Teach for India, Delhi. She can be reached at [email protected].

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