“There is a lot of sitting and listening, and not a lot of thinking.”
(Robert Pianta, on his observation of more than 1,000 classrooms, in Focus, by Mike Schmoker, ASCD, 2011)
Jay was the student who challenged my patience, my creativity and my classroom management skills more than anyone else, for one whole year. Restless, sometimes bossy, most often not very sociable, Jay had, however, a brilliant mind; he loved science and lived to inquire. He wasn’t an “easy” student; however, I couldn’t help but love his passion for learning. He wanted to know more and more, but most often in very unconventional ways. Jay was the child who, after having admitted to having made a regrettable choice, was taken to the Director’s office and looked him straight in the eye without flinching when he was being admonished.
Jay was only in Grade 1.
Now Jay is in Grade 2, but he still calls my name when he sees me on the hallway, and he still comes to tell me stories and to chat.
A few days ago, Jay told me the saddest thing I have ever heard a child say. I asked: “So how’s Grade 2, Jay?” He replied: “Hmmm… You know, Ms. Ghicu? In Grade 2 we have to sit and listen. Now we are not allowed to ask questions. You know, how we used to ask in Grade 1? And now my brain is going crazy…” Words accompanied by very explanatory hand gestures around his head, to show me how his mind was struggling to hold in all those ideas and wonderings that were not allowed to surface.
My heart broke. Right then and there. How could a child in an IB school of the 21st Century say that he was not allowed to ask questions? When have we replaced inquiry with “sitting and listening”? When did we start allowing children’s minds to go crazy because they can’t ask questions?
I am a strong believer in the power of questioning. I believe the ability to ask questions is the human attribute that demonstrates our higher thinking skills and sets us apart from other living things. In my teaching I use questions to check for student understanding, but even more so, to promote critical thinking and self-reflection. I believe a good question is a powerful trigger to encourage kids to think beyond the visible and to gain more than a superficial understanding of the world and of themselves.
Therefore, more than being the one who asks questions, I aim to encourage my students to ask questions themselves. I want them to ask questions about anything and everything, and to even question what I teach them and what they have already learned.
I have witnessed the power of questioning many times, and I learned that kids are never too young to ask questions. For instance, I had noticed that my Grade 1 students were somehow getting used to listening to a book being read-aloud or to read a book themselves. Then, when finished, they would simply put the book aside and move on. Just another story. I knew this wasn't right, so in my Readers' Workshop I decided to focus on asking questions as we read. I chose a picture book called "Harry The Dirty Dog" to read aloud and I told my kids that we were going to practice asking questions, like smart thinking readers do. I showed them the cover of the book, told them the title, and I said: "Does anyone have any questions about this book?" After a few seconds, a hand went up: "Why is Harry dirty?" Immediately, 3 or 4 kids came up with possible answers: "Maybe he fell in a mud hole." "Maybe he doesn't like to take baths." "Maybe he ran away from home." I was happy my kids were thinking about possible answers, but this was not my purpose of the day. I wanted them to come up with questions. I wanted them to think critically, to look beyond the cover; to question even my reason for choosing that particular book.
I thanked those who provided answers, but I told my class: "Today we will do something different. I don't really want us to think about answers to our questions. I want us to see what questions we can come up with about this book. As I am looking at the cover, I am wondering who is Harry. Does he have an owner? Is he a puppy or a grown dog? Will he get clean again?" I still heard a couple of "Maybe he..." but I reminded everyone that I wanted us to be critical thinkers and ask questions that the book itself might (or might not) be able to answer for us.
I gave them a few seconds to think, as I was getting myself ready for some questioning. But I couldn't have prepared myself enough for what happened. We spent the next 10-15 minutes just asking questions. One question brought up another one. Nobody was thinking about "maybe" answers any more. Kids were looking at the cover of a book about a dirty dog called Harry and were asking questions about friendship, animal rights, family relationships, different types of lifestyles, similarities and differences, happiness and pain... I was overwhelmed. And this was happening in a Grade 1 classroom where 85% of the students were beginning English language learners. I was amazed, fascinated and rendered speechless by the beauty of my students' minds. They showed me more about the depth of their thinking by asking questions about a dirty dog than by providing me with 15 minutes worth of answers. It took us 3 lessons filled up with questions to go through the book, and when finished, we still hadn't found the answer to all our questions. But that was fine. The experience itself had been far more valuable and rewarding than a bunch of answers could have ever been.