Support children’s learning by asking questions

Can you remember a time when you figured something out all by yourself? Something you wanted to know more about so you spent time researching and figuring out how something might work or what it means? Have you ever forgotten that? How did it make you feel when you solved a problem or found the answers you were looking for? I bet you felt great and proud of yourself. Discovering things for yourself is more satisfying than someone just giving you the answers or telling you about a bunch of things you don’t really take an interest in. Children are the same. Asking open-ended questions is a great way to support children’s learning.

The role of the adult

In Reggio, the role of the teacher/ adult is co-researcher. To me this means helping children learn and discover. It is not the ‘old school’ method of, I am an adult, and I know everything so just listen and learn.

How do children learn?

Through play, children learn things for themselves and therefore can experience that same feeling which then encourages them to keep on learning.

For example- A child is playing with water, a funnel, a jug, a sieve and a bottle. When they try to scoop up the water with the sieve, what happens? The water runs right through. Then they scoop the water with a jug, what happens? The water stays in the jug. Now they want to fill up the bottle with water. They use the jug, but it takes a long time as water keeps spilling and not all of it goes into the bottle. You know that if they used the funnel, it would be much easier. But this is exactly when you do not want to jump in and say do it this way. They will keep experimenting and will likely figure out that using the funnel is easier. Sometimes they won’t, and they just want to continue doing it their way. Is that a big problem? I don’t think so because hopefully won’t be their last experience with water play and so they will figure it out next time. Playing with other children can help because maybe on child already knows to use the funnel, so they can watch and learn from each other (social constructivist theory of learning)

If you really can’t sit by and say nothing then perhaps just suggest, “Have you tried using the funnel to fill the bottle?” Leave it at that and just accept whatever the child does after that.

As co-researcher, we are guiding them, giving them options, suggestions, and ideas. Can you see how gentle prompts will be more effective than taking over and saying this is how it is done? Don’t forget, children enjoy a challenge.

There will be times when you are exploring things with your child, and you do not actually know the answer. Great! This is an excelling opportunity to work together and guide your child by showing them how one could research the answer.

When I began teaching Reggio style one of the challenges was finding good questions to ask. As I said before we are not simply giving them all the answers but encouraging them to think and problem solve. We therefore use questions to investigate topics. Even after 10 years of teaching, I often hit a dead end or get a bit lost. That is okay, it is all part of the process.

Remain curious

What does help me, is to remain curious. I might have an idea of how my discussion might go regarding a topic but then a child may give a very obscure answer. Instead of brushing it off because I don’t want to get off track, I will ask “tell me more…” or “what do you mean by that?” or my all time favorite question “what makes you say that?” It might be that they have an incredible idea or observation and are just struggling to express it, so I try to help uncover what they are thinking.

Think out loud

It also helps to share your thoughts and ideas out loud- model an every day culture of thinking and curiosity. You might say “I wonder why…” A random example could be when walking outside, “I wonder why these flowers are purple and these flowers next to it are pink?” You can leave it just with a wondering so children can also see that sometimes we just wonder and we don’t always immediately research the answer for everything. Sometimes we are happy just noticing things around us that are interesting.

I wonder…

I like to use the phrase, “I wonder…” as it encourages children to think and to observe what is happening around them. Some children are not used to being asked open-ended questions and using the word wonder seems to put less pressure on them. It often takes them time to get used to giving answers that they have to think about and to help them feel more comfortable answering these questions, you need to accept all answers given. You can then ask follow-up questions such as “what makes you say that?” so they know you want to know more about their thoughts. I think being able to justify their thinking is more important than giving the correct answer. Children are developing these skills and so they also need to know that they can give their own thoughts and ideas and not be afraid to ‘give a wrong or right answer’ or to be focused on giving an answer they think you want to hear. You can also model this by giving ‘silly’ theories such as maybe these flowers are pink because the fairies that live here painted them pink.

Teach children to ask good questions

Another important skill is for children to learn how to ask questions. If they are going to research and investigate things, they need to ask questions. We know that children are very good at asking “why?” but we also want them to know how to ask more specific questions. I always tell my children that a question is something we do not know the answer to. I will often ask children “what do you want to know more about? What questions do you have?” And many times, it is answered with a statement. I ask them to start with ‘I wonder” and then I add to that by reminding them we can ask- “I wonder how…?” or “I wonder why…?” or “I wonder what…?” or “I wonder when…?”

So again, we want to model what a question is. Let us use the example of flowers again. A child might say flowers need water. You can turn this into a question saying, “I wonder why flowers need water?” or “I wonder how much water flowers need?”  The aim is to create a safe space where asking and answering questions are valued and important. I always tell the children, there are no right or wrong answers during this discussion, that I want to know their thoughts and ideas. When documenting my discussions at school I tell them I am writing this down because your ideas are very important to me. You can also document at home.

Examples of open ended questions

“Tell me more…”

“What makes you say that…?

“Is it reminding you of something?”

“Have you seen something like this before?”

If working with other adults or teachers, it is often useful to brainstorm questions before you start a topic or share the questions that have worked well for you. The good thing about questions is that you can always ask more.

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