Why do we ask why?

Ramgopal K

In teaching and learning, questions are a regularly used tool… Teachers use ‘Why’ questions with children as young as 5 years. But what do we want to teach the children through these questions?

In most classrooms today, children are given the answers to standard questions and are made to learn (read memorise) the answer. For a question like ‘Why do we have a bath every day?”, the teacher might give children the answer , ‘We have a bath to keep ourselves clean and tidy and stay healthy’. The child passively accepts and memorises this and reproduces it when asked, either orally or in writing. Now for this child an answer that says, ‘We have a bath to stay fresh’ is not valid because it has not been handed down from the teacher – the authority for knowledge. So one has killed an opportunity for the child to think on her own and decide, on the merit of what is said whether the response is valid or not. Worse still we are conveying to the child that there is just one valid reason for having a bath and that any other reason cannot exist or is unacceptable.

why Questions like why we have a bath daily don’t have one right answer; of course any answer also may not be right. But there can be many reasons for one to have a bath. By giving a standard answer to the child to memorise; at best the child is learning a few spellings. The child is also learning that only what the teacher gives is right, and there is only one correct answer to a question and that they can’t with the knowledge they have express their own ideas – they need to depend on the teacher to hand them the right answer. Or that there may be many reasons, but in school this is what ought to be said/written. Is this what we want the child to learn?

Encouraging children to think and write their own answers expands the learning possibilities. For one, they are thinking on their own, rather than passively expecting an adult to give them THE ONE RIGHT ANSWER. Then they are expressing on their own, which means that they are learning to use their vocabulary and their knowledge of sentence construction to make meaning and give expression. What can be more exciting for a learner than to know that she is able to make use of what she has learnt!! And what is written is HER OWN CREATION – it helps the child believe in her ability to think, reason and use her knowledge to give expression to her idea. That is a very important learning. Even a spelling like ‘stadi’ (for study) – which is so obviously wrong, when looked at carefully might actually suggest progress for a child who has just started learning the sounds of letters, because ‘stadi’ is a perfectly legitimate phonic construction! The child has understood the phonic logic, now she only has to learn that the English language has its idiosyncrasies.

Responses from children can give a rich insight into their thinking worlds to the teacher. These responses can become the starting point for a discussion on the topic. Listening to answers from others and reasoning about their validity allows the child to think beyond her initial answer and broadens her own understanding of the concept/issue. After the discussion, the teacher can now ask the children to rewrite their answers. This kind of a participative exercise enriches learning.

Learning to think for oneself, learning to give expression to one’s own idea and appreciating that there can be many possible valid responses to a given question are more valuable learning objectives than presenting well-memorised, perfect-looking sentences.

The author works with Centre for Learning, Secunderabad. He can be reached at [email protected].

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