An education guidebook for inquiring minds

A journalist shows how asking questions leads to true learning
By: and | Issue: June, 2015
May 18, 2015

As a writer, Warren Berger asks a lot of questions. It’s how he forms the ideas that he conveys in his work for a variety of publications, including Fast Company, Harvard Business Review and Wired.

In his book A More Beautiful Question (Bloomsbury, 2014), Berger says the art of inquiry is the foundation of advancements in science, medicine, mathematics and more. Questioning “what is” often leads to the discovery of “what could be.” Yet, in our schoolsÑthe one place that should emphasize questioningÑwe value rote answers to standardized tests over challenging inquiry.

“As I talked to educators, I found a genuine interest in the subjectÑmany teachers acknowledge it’s critically important that students be able to formulate good questions,” Berger says. “Yet, for some reason, questioning isn’t taught in most schools, nor is it rewarded.”

You write that children have a natural inclination to ask questions when they are young, but it drops off dramatically when they start school.

Yes, that seems to be the case. Peak questioning is reached around ages 4 and 5, and then there is a drop-off after that. That’s been documented in some studies, and there’s a lot of anecdotal information on that as well. It’s such a steady decline that, by the time they are in, say, junior high school or high school, many kids are really not asking questions at all.

Why is that?

There are many factors that contribute to it. One of them is the design of our current education system, which, for the most part, is about memorizing answers and absorbing the information from the teacher or from the text.

There are not many opportunities to inject your own questions into the process. Questioning often gets marginalized in our education process. Some teachers do encourage it, of course. But, too often, it’s a thing that gets squeezed in at the end of a lesson as, “Does anybody have any questions?” Then it’s more of a formalityÑ”We’re going to allow you to ask questions if you really have to. But if you don’t have to, we’re going to move on.”

The message kids get is that questions are not important or they are even a distraction.

There are other issues that come into play as kids get older, such as social pressure. It’s not seen as cool to be asking questions. The value of questioning, though, is that if you don’t ask your questions, you miss out on a chance to really get a deeper understanding of what you are being taught.

That also speaks to societal pressures. You note that low-income children are often trained not to ask questions.

They’re afraid of the consequences. A couple things are going on there. One is that they may be more likely to be in larger, noisier classrooms. In that case, questioning becomes part of a problem for the teacher. The teacher in that environment is desperately trying to maintain order and some sense that the lesson can go forward. They need students to just behave.

That’s what happens with low-income kids. They are in an environment where disruption is not welcome, and interruption is not welcome, and questioning of authority is not welcome. So they’ve got a lot of issues to contend with. When you are in that kind of environment, you have to be careful about asking questions.

But if you don’t develop that habit or if you stifle it, then your learning ability gets diminished somewhat. The real shame is that it could really hurt them later on in the professional world, especially if they are going into innovative business environments where questioning is a good thing and it’s wanted.

When you get out of the habit of questioning, you tend to become more accepting of whatever information is handed to you. That’s obviously not good, especially in today’s world.

Journalists are taught there is no such thing as a stupid question. Should teachers convey that same message?

I think it’s really valuable to ask stupid questions. Questions that seem to be rooted in curiosity are usually really engaging to people. People love to get the kind of question that is actually seeking knowledge and seeking information.

The only kind of questions I don’t like, generally speaking, are questions that are not really rooted in curiosity. There are people who sometimes ask questions to try to make someone else look bad, or they ask questions because they want to be the devil’s advocate in a meeting and show how smart they are.

Deborah Meier created an alternative school model that fostered inquiry in New York in the 70s. Why didn’t it catch on?

It was successful at the time but, as often happens, various bureaucratic issues came up. She had some problems and some disagreements with the school system over how the schools should be run. Eventually she left. The schools are still around. I think they are still doing pretty well.

These kinds of new school movements seem to have a lot of momentum early on, then the novelty seems to wear off and they lose momentum. That seems to be a pretty common thing in the education world. It’s almost like the flavor-of-the-month thingÑa school becomes a hot school for a little while and then people stop talking about it.

Other schools have tried various approaches that teach questioning as an important thing for kids to do. They show kids that they need to ask questions and they need to use a certain model of questioning when encountering new information.

So that approach has been successful at other schools since then, and you’ll find good teachers using it. But what happens too often in many schools is that it’s still the teacher asking most of the questions. Somewhere along the line, you have to flip it so it’s the kids asking questions and thinking about their questions. They’ll have a new appreciation of questioning because they are using it themselves in a new way.

That’s a big jump.

It is, because, in a way, it involves the teacher giving up some control and some power. The one who asks the questions in a classroom is the one who has the power. They are dictating what direction the conversation is going. So it’s a big adjustment to turn over more questioning to the students.

But if they don’t, they end up with uninterested kids whose attitude is, “Just tell me what I need to know to pass the test.”

Exactly. If you are not allowing and encouraging kids to ask questions, then they are more passive. If you allow them to ask questions, they become partners in the learning process. But if you are the only one asking the questions, then it’s more of a traditional teacher-student kind of relationship. It’s a different dynamic.

In those cases where kids are asking a lot of questions in a certain type of classroom, we’re seeing that it really sparks far more interest and engagement.

One of the teachers I spoke with said that when kids formulate their own questions it shows a level of care. They care about the question. They take ownership of it.

What can a school administrator do with this information?

What schools have to do is explore all the ways that they might allow for more questioning, and encourage more questioning in the classroom. That can take a lot of different forms. I don’t think there’s any one formula for it. It’s going to be up to the school administrators and the schools and the teachers to figure out.

They have to say, “We need to figure out how we can implement programs within our classrooms that will encourage more questions. We’re going to think about how we might signal to kids that it’s important and that we value questioning. What can we do to overcome some of the reservations that kids might have about asking questions?”

It starts with school administrators. They have to put it on the agenda, right up there with math and science and everything else, as one of the things to focus on and treat seriously. They have to make time for it.

One of the main reasons questioning gets squeezed out of the classroom is that it’s seen as something there isn’t enough time for. Of course you would never say that about math or English. You would never say, “Well, we just don’t have time to teach kids math.”

Tim Goral is senior editor.