By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE.
Questions can be a wonderful way of supporting children’s thinking, theories, and emerging interests. On the other hand, they can be used to test children’s memory and can end up stifling their language development. Open-ended questions are developmentally more appropriate than closed-ended and testing questions. Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be responded to with one-word answers such as yes or no. Questions should stimulate thinking and support language development. When in dialogue with children the goal should be to ask thought-provoking, challenging, and stretching questions. Rather than testing questions such as “what colour is that?”, we can ask questions that lead to more questions which then provide children with the opportunity to be theory builders. This supports the image of the child as capable and competent.
The goal with questioning children should not be about the right answer. It should not be about testing memory. Memory according to Bloom’s taxonomy represents the lowest order of thinking. When my grandson Griffen, asked why the ants on the trail were traveling in a group, I did not know the answer. I asked him to tell me his theory. He thought it was because they like being together because they were friends. Ants work together to protect their colony from threats from people, animals, and other ant colonies. I didn’t tell Griffen this when I looked it up. I asked him more questions about why the ants might want to be together. I had more information to ask better questions to deepen his thinking and help him make relationships between the ants and his own place in the world. Was he correct about ants being friends? Factually I don’t think so but theoretically, it was his theory, and it sparked a great dialogue about friendship in the time of COVID. It was not necessary to present the right answer. Questions are more important than answers. Tiziana Filippini speaks to documentation as “not about finding answers, but generating questions” (Turner & Wilson, 2010, p. 9). Questions can serve our work with children, but they can also help in our work with others as coaches and mentors. When we begin with professional curiosity questions lead to other questions. Consider the graphic below which was adapted from an article by Stremmel (2018) Posing a Researchable Question.
When teachers pose questions worth asking, they do so from an attitude—a stance—of inquiry, and they see their classrooms as laboratories for wonder and discovery (Stremmel, 2018). Teachers are researchers. To fully accept the image of the child as theory builder, we need to also embrace the image of the teacher as theory builder. Consider the role of questions in both your practice and in your professional learning. When we ask questions of ourselves and others, do so from the perspective of being a critical friend. Your questions are about supporting development and growth. Question with kindness and respect. Keep searching for questions rather than answers as that is what research is about. If your search ends with the “right” answer, the quest is over. Keep questing. Keep questioning. Keep searching. Keep (re)searching!
Gambill (2021) suggests ways to ask higher-quality questions which I have related to early childhood education. Think about how you could use these questions as a mentor, a coach and/or critical friend. Think about how you could use these questions with children.
- Understand Rather than Judge
Like a testing question, a question laced with judgement can trigger defensiveness. Rather than ask “Why haven’t you …?” or “Why do you always …?” or “Have you thought about …?” think before you ask. Try to understand the context of the other.
- Open-Ended Questions
Gambill (2021) states that, who, what, where, when, how, or why questions can lead to thoughtful answers that provide more information. The best questions tend to be how, what, and why questions because they are broader and invite more input. When we ask questions, it is because we are searching for meaning. Rinaldi (2004) states that Reggio educators believe that how, what, and why questions are the ones that children constantly ask themselves.
We don’t have to teach them to ask “why?” because inside each human being is the need to understand the reasons, the meaning of the world around us and the meaning of our life. We believe that it is important to try to reflect on the children’s questions and understand why they are asking why. What are their connections? What are their reflections? Why do they ask this why? Children ask “why?” not only when they speak directly but also through the hundred languages. There is a mix of practical and philosophical concerns in their questioning attitude, in their effort to understand the meaning of things and the meaning of life. (Rinaldi, 2004, p. 2)
- Follow-Up Questions
When I was teaching early childhood education, questioning was taught from the perspective of a dichotomy with open-ended standing against closed-ended. If posed as “versus” open-ended should win but early learning practice is more complex than this clash of questions would suggest. It is not one or the other and as I used to tell my ECE students, it is the dialogue that is important. It should not be against ECE rules to ask closed-ended questions. When closed-ended questions serve as a starting point for follow-up questions they invite others to think more deeply about what is being asked. If you ask a closed-ended question use a follow up question and ask, “tell me more about …?” or “what else are you thinking …?”
- Paraphrasing and Closed-Ended Questions
Asking a closed-ended question of a child is not the end of the world! In the natural flow of dialogue, it happens. Closed-ended questions typically lead to “yes” or “no” answers. Gambill (2021) also suggests pairing these with paraphrasing statements. Paraphrase what you heard followed by the question to ensure understanding. “Let me make sure I understand. I hear you saying …” followed by “Is there something I missed?”
Is there something I missed in this blog about questions? Have you found it helpful to your practice? How else can I help you? What can you tell me about how you use questions in your practice? Why are questions so important? Let’s continue this quest for questions as we search and search for meaning.
Don’t listen to the person who has the answers; listen to the person who has the questions ~ Albert Einstein