Let’s All Engage in Questionable Thinking?!

Let’s All Engage in Questionable Thinking?!

By Dijana Bate, Glebe Montessori School Founding Director

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It seemed like an ordinary moment, but a conversation between a woman and her 3 year-old grandson captured my attention. They were standing at an intersection and instead of directing the child to wait until the pedestrian signal facing us turned green before crossing the street, she asked him, “What are the cars doing when the hand signal flashes red?”… “And the people, what are they doing?” Acknowledging his response, she confirmed, “Yes, they are waiting while the cars are moving”… “And what colour is the traffic light when the cars are moving?”… “Did you see the yellow traffic light, before it turned red…what do you think the yellow light is for?” As the exchange continued, the child was fully engaged, happily assessing the impact of the changing lights and monitoring the traffic situation.

Too often, we give children predictable instructions rather than ask questions that invite them to reason, problem solve and pay attention to details. How much more satisfying it is for children to investigate the “how’s” and “why’s,” and figure out solutions themselves!

A Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis, cites that preschool children ask at least a hundred questions per day (much to the distress of parents). “Yet by middle school, children basically stop asking questions. It’s no coincidence that student motivation and engagement plummet at this same time. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest– it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.”

If only textbooks were restructured to ask questions instead of delivering endless statements! Learning should be an active, explorative process rather than the passive digestion and memorization of facts!   “What if the earth were shaped as a cube instead of a sphere – how would it affect our seasons, day and night…?” Questions force us to give context to information, to organize our thoughts, to examine and evaluate content.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” These words of Einstein are echoed by Jonas Salk: “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.” What if Isaac Newton never asked, “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” And would we have celebrated the 100th anniversary of the General Theory of Relativity if Einstein wasn’t curious enough to ask, “What would the universe look like if I rode on a light beam?”

Questions are key to both teaching and learning. How can we encourage a culture of questioning in our homes and schools? Parents and teachers can start by reading and applying Socrates’ wealth of knowledge! It was Socrates who scorned the youth of his day with a rant that sounds all too familiar, “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise!” But it is the same Greek scholar whom we can thank for the Socratic Method, teaching both adults and children to think independently and construct their own questions to probe deeper. Thinking becomes clarified when framing thoughts into questions that ask: Why? How? What if?  What are the implications? How would this affect that? What would the result be if? What is the evidence? What is the logical consequence? Is there an alternative view or argument? The Socratic method challenges us to enter into dialogues and answer each question with another question, stimulating new connections, and testing the premise upon which a conclusion is based. Dr. Richard Paul’s and Dr. Linda Elder’s publication, the Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning, is a valuable resource for implementing the method, for parents and teachers alike.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is another learning tool which utilizes questions to affect different levels of cognitive thinking. Bloom’s Cognitive Domain is organized into six categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation. Dalton and Smith published a practical chart that provides questions, vocabulary and activities aligned with Bloom’s original Taxonomy, which parents may find particularly useful when reading with their child.  Examples of the Comprehension category questions presented on this chart are: Can you write in your own words? What do you think could have happened next? What was the main idea? Can you provide a definition for? Suggestions for follow-up activities include: Make a cartoon strip showing the sequence of events; retell the story in a theatrical version… Defining verbs such as analyze, compare, contrast, illustrate, etc., ensures precise language to clarify concepts and thought processes.

By questioning, we add new dimensions to our own experiences and to our interactions with others. While drawing on Socrates’ and Dr. Bloom’s expertise to train the mind to question and think critically, let’s not underestimate Einstein’s “light beam ride” or Socrates’ reminder that “wisdom begins in wonder.” Questioning is a mindset that needs to be sparked and fueled by curiosity and the imagination.  “I have no special talent,” said Einstein, “I am only passionately curious…One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. The important thing is to never stop questioning…question everything…”