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How Great Questions Invite Thinking

One of the great gifts we can embrace in our teaching toolkit is the art of asking meaningful and connected questions. Questions have such a beautiful way of opening diverse pathways for wondering, thinking and imaginative theories to flow. This generates higher order thinking capacities in children such as creating, analysing and evaluating which takes effort and intellectual rigour. There are also of course, plenty of questions that limit children's thinking and easily reduce deeper learning to simple answers on topics we already know children know - this type of questioning is often motivated by mere fact finding and stems from an image of the child where gaps are for identifying and therefore the knowledgeable teachers role is to fill the child up.


This idea that children are sponges and simply soak up the world around them is a false narrative and requires resisting and rethinking. If we hold an image of the child as curious, capable and as an active researcher our questions then must create space for working theories, experiential ideas and creative thinking to be cultivated. It is my hope that children feel confident to express their idea's no matter what they might be and any teaching team holds that gently and with curiosity. It takes a lot to share your thinking after all.


Lets take a quick look at some questions and see if you notice any difference in how they might promote or restrict thinking with children?

1.     How many legs does a spider have?

2.     Is this spider poisionous?

3.     I wonder how spiders make friends?

4.     How might spiders talk to each other?


 

Great questions come from great listeners

All good questions start first with listening. Ann Pelo (2014) offers us some clues on how to listen to children so that this deeper type of listening inform our questions. I love these 3 points she states in her article 'finding the questions worth asking:'

1.     Listen. Listen some more. Listen again.

2.     Speak the language that children are speaking.

3.     Join your attention to the children’s attention.

 

If we are not listening deeply to children’s play we can simply end up asking questions that are disconnected from the child's experience and will act as an intrusion in their moment of play. I am sure we can all relate to a well intended question being met with blank faces, a long awkward pause and children turning back to their play without a response. When we listen and find ways to hold back, we are able to connect more authentically to the child’s narrative, gestures and cues. This is where the home of great questions is generated.

 

“Good questions are born in silence. They begin with the humility of listening.”

Ann Pelo, 2014, p50

 

The idea of listening deeply for some can feel like being in unchartered waters. Often the term listening and observing go hand and hand and run the risk in some contexts to be reduced to a rapid collection of notes proving what children know. When we navigate toward new destinations in our practice we often require something to anchor ourselves into so you might like to try listening for the:  

1.     Unexpected

2.     Challenging

3.     Surprising

4.     Intriguing

5.     Working theories

 

A number of years ago I had an opportunity to mentor a fabulous teacher Ellen and we engaged in rethinking a project that had already started around the zones of regulation. We intentionally removed the commercial posters related to this program and started inviting children to represent their own emotions using colour. Immediately this generated new possibilities. The purple zone emerged and soon after the black zone! Whilst this project had so many facets, this small glimpse shows an example of how new working theories emerge when you create space for children to creatively express their own thinking.



Listening to the unexpected and catching a glimpse of this meaning making experience offered fertile ground for developing more connected questions that could be offered back to the group for further inquiry. What possible questions might you come up with to relaunch the purple and black zones to children?

  • What happens in the purple and black zone? What does it look like?

  • What do you notice about your insides when it is quiet I wonder? Shall we try being quiet and describing our insides?

  • I'm curious about what the black zone does with all the lost feelings? As a side note this working theory really reminds us how children can think in abstract metaphorical ways.

 

“To make a creative event out of an object, it is necessary to extract it from the facts-of-life category…shake the object, extract the object from the series of usual associations”

Gianni Rodari, Festive of Thought Exhibition, Reggio Emilia 2023

 

Great questions cultivate a research culture

Questioning is part of encompassing the disposition to be a researcher. Questions can act as guide posts for identifying children’s curiosity as well as giving us feedback and direction in what they find more meaningful about a topic you are exploring. A good question has the potential to create space for hypothesising and wondering, building a culture where ideas and thinking is valued. How delightful!


There are no right or wrong questions but there are certainly open and closed ones as well as questions that expand children’s opportunities to think more critically or at a metacognitive level. When questions generate deep and rich thinking it will be important to allow the space for children to untangle and explore at a pace that reflects their interest.


Maybe you are new to this idea of reserching with children so you might start first by learning to capture children's ideas and curiosities through a practice strategy such as a wondering wall or a good ideas book. This act of making visible your listening with children will then open up possible questions that connect more meaningfully to the idea/subject at hand. Give it a go and notice how this changes the dialogue.



Great questions invite working theories

I mentioned above listening for working theories. For some this is also a new concept and if your lens for listening and observing children has primarily been through development it can take time to try on new lenses for listening.


Tuning into children's working theories offers a rich place for meaningful questions to be unearthed and explored so lets start with this definition by Dr Daniel Lovett:


"Working theories describe the tentative and evolving ideas and understandings that children develop as they use their existing knowledge and understandings to make sense of new information."


Questions are the glue that can connect lines of inquiry children have as they search for meaning about what matters to them. Our questions are subjective and reveal our own professional curisoities too. What I love most about children's working theories is how they often hold both logic and imagination in the same breath. I admire how children's natural creativity allow them to always think and express in orginal and inventive ways. We can learn so much from children can't we?


To illustrate this let me share an exert of a powerful example from two teachers at The Learning Space in Coburg, Ellen and Claire. The initial inquiry came from exploring:


'How can we tell when things get old?'


Four year old Lyra offers "You can tell how old someone is because when they get older their voice gets darker." This working theory proposes that voices have a connection to colour and age. Claire relaunched back to children a question: "If your voice had a colour what would it be?" She intentionally designed a context for children to represent their working theories through mark making using rectangular card and textas. She also invited the children to digitally record their voice via an app and use the print outs of their voices to inspire this connecton to the voice having a visible form. Here are some of those representations from children. How delightful and I can totally get a sense of the voices in these marks.



When looking at this collection of voices together we can see the combination of line and colour forming and all different and diverse. Aida also shared some illustrative descriptions of her working theory titled 'this is my voice' - these unexpected and surprising offerings are another opportunity to generate a meaninful and connected question to deepen this meaning making experience.



Making visible to the eye what you can hear requires some creative hypothising. I am always taken by surprise at how easily children enter into this complex phenomena - especially if the questions invite it.


Meaning making exploration with the voice and colour continued and involved a collaborative piece of work outside by a small group of children. Using pastels and paper they selected their voice colours and started to make marks and have discussion. This process revealed how the properties of the pastel intrigued children as it created smudgeness and connectedness with their 'voices.' This generated new working theories and now what was an individual perspective started to become a collective one.


"Look our voices combine and make a rainbow"

The possibilities to relaunch and generate new questions to explore this proposal of voice and colour continue but of course this blog must come to an end.


I invite you to think about the impact of your questions and how they are informed by the practice of deep listening and slow knowledge. Next time you hear youself asking a child "what colour is that?" or "How many planets are in the solar system?" catch yourself and reflect, "what value does this question have for children's thinking?' or if you are really brave you might consider "am I over simplify deeper learning with a quest for fast facts?"


Often staying quiet and listening longer is the act of finding more meaningful questions.



References

Pelo, A. (2014). Finding the Questions Worth Asking. Childcare Exchange Jan/Feb 2014, pp 50-53


A fabulous blog post is written here by Kath Murdoch

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3 Comments


Skie Peterson
Skie Peterson
a day ago

The way they straddle logic and imagination - it is genius. An amalgamation of the right and left sides of the brain. How many times have I been dismissive of this brilliance, preferring my agenda - for what? and for who? As a teacher, the competing demands - State, Families, Management, Government....it is a lot. Deep listening and slowing down, Being. This is where the gold is unearthed. I know it. And yet...the pressure of agenda, politics, societal standards and systems... it's a tidal wave. It's a juggle. It's an awkward dance. It is a mess. I can understand why teachers revert to checklists and worksheets....but it's not for me. I am, heart on my sleeve up for the struggle…

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Oh my heart 💓💖 Now how do we actually get Teacher's doing this again? Especially in State or Public settings 🤔😓 If I had a fairy godmother I would wish for a Teacher like this for my 4.5yo Granddaughter, oh and every other 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 year old in a school. Thankyou

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Kelly - A big thankyou! I needed this, a gentle reminder of the importance of our role… and what really is important to the children we research with daily!

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