Learning when to stop asking children questions, even when it's in the name of “inquiry”
I’ve written before about my use of questions to prompt or assist children (and adults for that matter) to consider something more deeply. To stretch them just a little bit further... to springboard their curiosity...
See the following blog posts where I've shared examples of how I've incorporated questioning in the past:
Probing the world around us through our questions can certainly help us learn more about it, understand it, perhaps appreciate it with more depth. After all, these are the foundations of education that is "inquiry-based"!
And I'm also coming to acknowledge more now that there are times where asking questions can be, well, just probing. An invasion of someone’s inner world. An expectation for them to divulge their own thoughts and feelings at a time designated by me, the asker of the question.
I remember one child who had an interest in crystals. I asked them questions like:
"What do you know about crystals?"
"Where can you find them?"
"Why do you think they sparkle the way they do?"
I was trying to ignite curiosity, to spark a connection, to learn more together about crystals! I received nothing in response. They merely wandered away to continue their search for crystals...
Thinking about it now, perhaps I didn't actually receive "nothing" in response. Maybe their wandering away was the answer to my question. Maybe they were saying "I'm not willing or ready to share that with you right now."
I’ve been reading the book Coming Home: Community, Creativity, and Consciousness by Cheryl Charles and Bob Samples which gave me more pause for thought about asking questions. Charles and Samples (2004) say, “If I ask a question, I have the power. I am forcing a response and, typically, a narrow response because, out of the universe of topics we could discuss, I have predetermined what is important" (p. 228).
When I asked the child about crystals, I was imposing my thoughts and ideas about crystals onto the child and communicating what I felt was important to talk about. Even though the questions were "open-ended" they were still narrowing our conversation and were entirely based on my own view of the world instead of one shared between us.
And I know that there are many ways to view the world...
Consider this brief story that Charles and Samples (2004) share:
"A Navajo man we once knew chastised us and our European-American kin when he said, "You white people, you bring a weapon wrapped in the songs of your speech. It is the question. You think you can use it any time you want to destroy my people's silence. A question shatters my silence." It was informing and important to us to discover that languages of many [Indigenous] peoples in the Americas and other parts of the world did not use questions, the interrogative, until Europeans arrived." (p. 229)
And so I think about how my conversation about crystals evolved with the child described above...
Instead of asking questions, I just shut up. We went to explore an area of river bank where interesting rocks, like quartz, can be found. I observed from a respectful distance, close enough to be "around" but not too close to be invading space and privacy.
It wasn't long before the child approached me with a "crystal" - a quartz rock found near the riverbank. "This is a dragon crystal!" the child exclaimed, with a sense of joy radiating from their little body. "Dragon crystals are dragon eggs and you can incubate them so they hatch. Different coloured crystals come from different types of dragons."
"Wow!" I responded, meeting them with an equal amount of excitement and joy. "I would love to learn more about dragon crystals."
And with that, we spent the day together on and off sharing in exploration, observation, and discussion about crystals. We even experimented with placing one near the fire to help it "incubate" in the hopes we could watch it hatch. It didn't, this time, but our hypothesis was that perhaps not all eggs hatch...
Instead of posing questions, Charles and Samples (2004) recommend speaking in the "declarative" instead. They state, "Questions are power plays. Statements level the playing field." (p. 234)
I now recognize that what encouraged the child to share their personal knowledge and curiosity about crystals wasn't me asking them a question... It was me making a statement:
"I would love to learn more about dragon crystals."
It was an invitation to share more. Not an expectation. And that changed everything.
This has got me thinking about shifting my approach from asking direct questions (e.g. "What do you know about crystals?") to sharing my wonderings (e.g. "I wonder what I could learn about crystals..."). Then I am owning my own curiosity instead of imposing it on others.
Perhaps the child also wonders what they could learn about crystals and we then engage in a process of shared learning. And perhaps they don't wonder about crystals and want to learn about the water flowing down the river instead. Good thing I checked before assuming I knew what they were interested in!
These ideas are discussed further in the book Natural Curiosity 2nd Edition: A Resource for Educators: The Importance of Indigenous Perspectives in Children's Environmental Inquiry by Doug Anderson, Julie Comay, and Lorraine Chiarotto. The authors introduce inquiry-based teaching methods alongside Indigenous perspectives on learning. They discuss areas of overlap and areas of tension between them and the ways in which this ultimately stems from differences in world views.
The book invites us to recognize our own biases and assumptions in the ways that we think about learning and "being" in this world so that we can make space for alternative perspectives:
"While appreciation for diverse ideas can be a strength of inquiry-based learning, it is still worth reflecting upon our unexamined cultural assumptions and expectations... For example, direct questioning may not be everyone's way of showing curiosity... Thinking about Indigenous learners, Doug Anderson has identified tensions between the technology-driven endeavours of European science and the more holistic, relational views that saturate many Indigenous cultures" (p. 54)
And so I'm coming to better understand how there is often an assumption in learning environments that asking questions is serving a beneficial purpose. We may believe we are furthering our knowledge by examining the details and parts of the world around us, often in the name of science. But Western science comes from a euro-centric perspective which carries cultural, and political, agendas. Sometimes these don't align with other world views and cultural values.
And sometimes existing world views do overlap when we make space to acknowledge them.
Doug Anderson (2017) writes: "[From an Indigenous world view] learning is most powerful when rooted in the heart. Learning proceeds from within the child, which corresponds to the sense of wonder emphasized in inquiry-based teaching. Wonder is innate and sacred, and cannot be imposed from without... This does not mean educators should abandon all "worldly" learning agendas. It does mean we need to respect and connect with children's inner lives, through strategies that bring them closer to the knowledge they need. Invite, and see. Invite in another way, and see - until the spark is lit. Rather than impose learning paths, we tell a story, or go somewhere with a purpose, or show something fun or new, and the path is taken up by the learners." (p. 58-59)
And so... I'm currently wondering how I can better foster children's learning, autonomy, and wellbeing through experiences that ignite and acknowledge their wonderings and gifts which they each carry in their own hearts.
Anderson, D., Comay, J., & Chiarotto, L. (2017). Natural Curiosity 2nd Edition: A Resource for Educators: The Importance of Indigenous Perspectives in Children’s Environmental Inquiry (2nd ed.). The Laboratory School at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study.
Charles, C., & Samples, B. (2004). Coming Home: Community, Creativity, and Consciousness. Personhood Press.