What is your question today?

Sharmila Govande

Knowing the answers may help them in school, but knowing how to question will help them for life.
– Warren Berger

One of my students – a young girl in grade 1 – loves to be neat in her work. She has good handwriting and organizes the page very well. The question numbers are written inside the margin, a blank line in between two answers and the date written neatly on the top left of her page. A few days ago she was writing the date and happened to erase it a couple of times when I asked her, “Can you tell me what these numbers mean?” by pointing out to the numbers she wrote while writing the date. She stared blankly at me not knowing what to say. To help her, I turned pages and pointed out that she never missed writing the date and I said, “Yesterday, you wrote 7.8.17, today you have written 8.8.17”. Can you tell me why?” After a lot of prodding, she replied, “My teacher writes this in class daily and has told us that we have to write it too. Or else she puts a big question mark.” This little girl did not know or understand the purpose of writing the date and wrote it only because she did not want a question mark on her book. This discussion left me with an uneasy feeling. I could see that like her there would be many children who do things just because they are asked to do so, without understanding the reason or without believing in its purpose.

primary-pack This was not my first encounter with such blind acceptance and non-questioning attitude of children. Ever since I started teaching, I found that children simply accept everything stated to them by an adult especially a teacher, without even attempting to ask the questions – why, what, how, when, where. This results in poor thinking and problem solving skills and it affects the much needed ability to make decisions as they mature into adults.

So, how do we get children to question? How do we work on building their curiosity levels and engage in questioning until they feel satisfied with their findings and are clear about a concept.

Children ask questions when they feel that their questions are appreciated. Therefore, parents, teachers and significant adults should encourage children to question. Teachers must make the time to listen to their students and display patience as children might find it difficult to explain the questions they have. Teachers must also help them articulate their question by rephrasing it. This helps the teacher make sure that the question is understood correctly. During one of my theme sessions, an eight-year-old girl wanted to know why rivers are formed only on mountains. She found it difficult to articulate her question and it took me some time before I understood what she wanted to ask. It is also important for teachers to accept the questions – however silly they may sound and answer them in a simple way. Another child wanted to know why I had three children. This question might sound silly to some and too personal to some others, or a hush-hush one to teenagers. However, to me it was a moment to rejoice as it came from a child who rarely asked questions and answering it truthfully resulted in a long discussion that revealed that this child did not have any siblings and yearned for one, but his mom did not want another responsibility.

A teacher doesn’t have to answer all the questions asked by a student. If she does, then she falls in the trap of, “Teachers know it all.” A discussion with fellow students, or a ‘let’s find out the answer’ helps the children learn to continue their quest for answers even in the absence of a teacher or an adult. When the teacher and student engage in searching for answers, they help the children develop the skill to research and read different perspectives on the problem. A discussion with fellow students helps in not only developing the ability to articulate and express, but also the ability to listen and comprehend various solutions or perspectives, gives rise to many other questions and helps in the formation of many concepts. In my theme class, the students were engaged in preparing pots for planting. We were reusing old plastic cartons and one student wanted to know why we were making holes in the carton. A discussion with fellow students followed, where a student shared the importance of draining excess water without which the plant would die. Another student shared his experience of how excess water damaged plants. A student linked it to floods and how floods damage crops and yet another took his connection further to why he felt planting in the soil directly is better. He shared that all excess water would seep into the ground and reach the water table.

The author is an education and social development professional. She is involved in teaching school children, facilitating workshops for teachers and parents and writing on education related topics. She can be reached at sharmilagovande@gmail.com.

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