By Dr. Stephanie Knight
Faculty, College of Education
While driving my Kindergartener to school, I’m flooded with questions. No, I’m not analyzing life’s deepest thoughts at the moment, but rather, my daughter has her curious hat on, and she’s wondering about the concept of termites today. Yesterday, it was what is gluten and do nuts have it in them.
What happens to our kids that in Kindergarten they ask so many questions without any filter and by middle school, students are paralyzed with fear that their questions are “right.” Something is killing their curiosity and perhaps it’s because we’ve been too focused on answers and not questions; we ceased teaching the art of questioning. Was it not Socrates who developed the classroom of questions before school was a formal institution? Maybe we should get back to this.
When we take a closer look at our classrooms, we see that teachers are overwhelmed with what they must cover in the curriculum and they must deliver it in a timely fashion. But does this equate to the students learning? We are usurping the floor and talking with hopes that they are listening. Maybe the tables could be turned to have the students be inquiry-minded and curiosity seeking which can increase engagement and therefore learning.
Let’s look at one step at a time changing the dynamic of teacher talking and get the students asking.
Model “I wonder”
The writing process can be a guide in how we can approach teaching to ask questions. I like to think aloud as I stumble through a first draft of what I want to say on paper. It’s a “process” in our head that may be messy, but it shows that there is no right or wrong way to write. Similarly, we can model how to ask questions. As we read something to the students, I can stop often and ask an “I wonder” question which is a good frame to start the questioning process. This is similar to annotating in the margins and conversing with the text.
Share with Partners Often
Once we have modeled to the class, we can have partners read a text to each other and stop to ask a question. Partner A can stop after a couple of paragraphs, and Partner B can wonder something. They can then trade. This also teaches conversation skills which include questioning and listening.
Allow Students to Question Everything
Set aside time for students to be curious. Whatever I am teaching, I stop often and allow for partners to ask questions to each other. This can apply to analyzing processes in math, for example. When two are working together, allow them to work through the process through asking each other questions and not telling them what to do.
Practice Each Kind of Question Daily
“What are we supposed to be doing” is not the question I want them to ask. However, I must teach my students the various types of questions, so they can learn to think critically and remain curious students. “Can you clarify ______ for me so I understand?” Or, “how does this relate to xyz?” What am I not seeing here that I should be getting? The key is for students to flex their curious muscles so they can grow their brain critically. We don’t want passive learners.
“We are a curious classroom.” This should be the mantra first day. I have to tell my students I don’t have all the answers and I definitely don’t know what to ask at times, but I don’t give up. If I don’t know, I tell them we will discover the answer together. We want to get to the point where we feel safe to ask even a “dumb” question, and then we can empower all students to dive in to their own thinking and go deeper. We want them to be filled with wonder again like when they were five years old.
Start an “I Wonder Wednesday”
Perhaps every Wednesday, students can take a question and make a project out of it. For example, students on Monday would pull out their journals and write down ten “I wonder” statements. I wonder how termites get into the walls? I wonder how gluten affects certain people negatively? I wonder why do quail always seem to be in families? On Tuesday, they would minimize their lists down to two or three. Then, Wednesday, allow them to learn answers or even gain more questions for a block of time. What we are doing is celebrating the art of questioning and the process of going deeper.
Creating a culture of curiosity allows our students to become active in their learning through discovery by asking questions. We want our students to embrace the process of discovery and not be paralyzed by fear of making a mistake. This is how we can truly engage our students and help them be excited about learning.
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More About Dr. Knight:
Dr. Stephanie Knight is an experienced 7th and 8th grade English language arts educator. She taught in Title One schools for eight years—helping them grow from underperforming to excelling—and then in an independent school for four years. Knight is now is part of Grand Canyon University’s adjunct faculty where she teaches graduate level education and reading courses.