The ability to ask questions is a vital part of a child’s education. But it’s not a skill that’s well taught, and not one taught early enough. It’s also painfully easy to discourage a child from asking at all. Over-strict teachers who dislike any deviation from their lesson plan can do years of damage to a student’s ability and eagerness to ask questions with a single sharp response. To avoid that, a few suggestions.

  • Make Asking Safe. Students raising their hands to ask a question feel at risk. They’re admitting they don’t know an answer in front of their peers. Make sure the class as a whole respects asking questions, and don’t allow any teasing, no matter how elementary the question may seem. When possible, form lessons that force every single classmate to ask questions.
  • Make Asking Rewarding. Make asking the right questions as valuable as getting the right answers. Give them credit in assignments for that kind of critical questioning. Make games out of figuring out new paths of inquiry. Don’t make the requirements too narrow; off-beat questions are just as important as the ones that educated scholars have asked for centuries. Let them base projects on their own questionings; they’ll be more committed to finding the answers, and learn what elements of an inquiry are likely to be fruitful.
  • Make Asking Stick. The goal is to educate students who will ask questions their whole lives. It needs to become part of how they think; that is how critical thinkers are made. It needs to become habit, the first instinct when presented with any new idea. Research suggests that question-training is important, and that it needs to include a stage of reflection, of leading students to recognize what they gain by asking questions and what they lose by not.

Mostly, the first time we learn about the importance of asking questions in school is in high school, learning about a thesis statement. But we need to be learning it much earlier, and in much more basic, everyday forms. A thesis is, after all, more assumption than true question. True questions are how we challenge theses, and how we find proof itself.

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