Asking Questions

I have written in many places about the centrality of questions to the work we do, and the importance generally of children learning to ask good questions and trusting that their questions are valuable.

Almost all very young children are alive with questions; they seem to naturally apprehend that this is the way to investigate and understand the world. At some point, however, most children absorb the message that questions are often not particularly welcome. They learn that having a question means that there is something they should have already grasped but have not. Asking questions publicly broadcasts what they don’t know, and this has the potential to be somewhat shameful, or at least embarrassing. And so they go silent. Walk into a sixth grade classroom, and it’s obvious that students pose questions with a tentativeness absent in kindergarten.

However, the ability to construct good questions is indispensable for navigating one’s way through contemporary life. Developing confidence and skill in questioning allows children to evaluate critically the constant flood of information that bombards them, gather what they need to make good decisions, and convey what gaps remain in their understanding of particular topics or situations. The more accomplished a child becomes at framing good questions, the more able he or she will be to think clearly and competently for herself.

Engaging children in conversations in which their questions are central, and encouraging them to articulate what led to their questions, is vital for helping children develop the ability to formulate and pose clear and articulate questions. Often a considerable part of a philosophy session with children will be spent listing the children’s questions and then choosing which question(s) to discuss. It can be easy, sometimes, in the goal-driven society in which we live, to see this part of the session as a precursor to the real work, the philosophy discussion itself. Indeed, when I first began doing philosophy in pre-college classrooms, I was often impatient about the time it took to get all the students’ questions on the board and decide what to discuss.

I’ve come to understand, however, that the time spent helping students to formulate their own questions and ensuring that the discussion starts with those questions is in the end just as valuable as the time spent actually talking about them. For one thing, learning to articulate questions in a clear way, so that your question accurately describes whatever it is that’s puzzling you, is an important skill that can only be developed with experience. Moreover, devoting time to listing and analyzing the students’ questions lets the students know that asking questions is itself a valuable practice, quite apart from the discussion of them (let alone answering them).

An organization about which I’ve recently become aware, The Right Question Institute, notes that asking questions is an essential skill for all learning, and its website has many resources for helping students construct good questions. My colleague, Amy Reed-Sandoval, has written about using the organization’s “Question Formulation Technique” in a philosophy session with children:

So much of primary and secondary education emphasizes knowing the answers, as if we had utter clarity about the meaning of most aspects of life. But, as philosopher Matthew Lipman once noted, it is when our knowledge of the world is revealed to be “ambiguous, equivocal, and mysterious,” that students are most inspired to think about the world. Questions are the keys to articulating that ambiguity and mystery. Philosophy can illuminate for children how vital questions are to examining the world in which we live and our place in it, and help them to cultivate their inclinations to question.