“Why might that have happened?”
“Why does she feel that way?”
“I wonder why the blocks fell down.”
Our teachers, whom you may have heard ask the above questions or versions of them to your children, are not question-answerers. They are question-askers.
This flips the traditional script of teachers as knowledge-givers and students as knowledge-receivers. Reflecting our view of developmental cognition, our students are knowledge-creators and our teachers are knowledge-supporters.
As parents and educators of young children, we have all likely seen a plethora of reasons to agree with psychologist Alison Gopnik’s assertion that children are “consumed by a desire to explore and experiment with objects.” Through a series of meticulously designed research studies, Gopnik concludes that, “It’s not just that we human beings can do this; we need to do it. We seem to have a kind of explanatory drive, like our drive for food or sex.”
Our students, your children, come equipped with that explanatory drive every day. They are consumed by the drive to figure out how blocks fit, or don’t fit, together; to determine the boundaries of what they can, and can’t do; to learn the reasons why people cry and smile; to find patterns and create them. Mariah Montessori, the famed educational philosopher, describes this work as the “inner toil” of children. Gopnik and Montessori, and early childhood theorists from across the spectrum, come to the same conclusion. Our children have a remarkable thirst to create knowledge out of the chaotic stimulations that are their world.
When we give our children answers instead of questions, we rob them of the joy and satisfaction derived from the search. Montessori explains, “Adults can hinder this inner toil when they rudely interrupt a child’s reflection or try to distract him.” As I spend my mornings in our classrooms, observing our teachers at work, my notes describing the teacher’s actions sometimes read like a Jack Johnson song title: “Sitting, waiting, watching, listening.”
In truth, our teachers are plenty active. But some of the strongest moments of learning occur when we answer a question with a question, and gently remove ourselves from the child’s cognition. Sometimes removing ourselves from the block corner, or sitting on the park bench as our children experiment with the slide or swing, are the best ways to ensure their healthy development. When we pull back, our children’s explanatory drives are left to shift into high gear. By asking questions instead of answering them, we allow the child to keep both the joy and responsibility of learning.