When we review older teaching methods, this reticence to question is perhaps no surprise. In conventional, didactic-style classrooms, the mantra ‘children should be seen and not heard’ was popular: children were taught to listen in silence, trusting their teacher to impart the necessary knowledge and that there was no need to query that wisdom.
Educational thinking has come a long way since then, though. Studies have shown that curiosity not only enhances a student’s enjoyment of the learning process, but also improves retention of information and critical thinking. It’s important, therefore, to embolden young people to challenge concepts and ideas, and be curious about the world around them. How, then, do we encourage young people to ask questions – and not just any questions, but the right ones?
It might sound obvious, but that doesn’t make it untrue: students are more likely to ask questions in an environment in which it feels safe to take risks – and even fail. As such, it’s important for parents and tutors to try to create an atmosphere where students are confident that any question will be listened to with sensitivity, even if it’s not relevant or phrased particularly well.
Getting things wrong – or asking a question that seems off topic – isn’t a bad thing: in fact, we should applaud students for taking that first step, which is part of the journey to better understanding the topic at hand.
In addition to the above, when a student does ask a question, it’s important to respond with feedback. If the question is particularly pertinent, we should take care not to forget to praise them – and be specific with that praise. If the question was insightful, well phrased, or succinct, say that exactly (rather than simply remarking ‘good question’).
If there are things the student can improve on, specific feedback is helpful here, too. It doesn’t need to be critical, but could be phrased in such a way as to help the student clarify their thinking.
Teaching students how to hone their critical thinking is vitally important – and one of the most powerful ways to do this is through example. It’s a great idea for tutors to constantly ask questions about the material in front of them, modelling all different types of questions (both good and bad). It can be very helpful to demonstrate a poor response and then ask the student to consider why the question asked wasn’t effective: perhaps it was an unclear question; perhaps it only elicited a short ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response; or perhaps it was a difficult question to answer. Prompting the pupil to consider the act of asking questions, how questions should be framed, and also how to structure questions to engage with more complex modes of thought can be extremely useful.
If students are thinking not only about what questions to ask, but also what further questions the initial question could prompt, they will be taking a valuable step down the road to heightened critical thinking and problem solving.
In addition, simply demonstrating a thirst for knowledge can prove inspiring to students. A tutor or parent who is always questioning is setting a powerful example – so don’t be afraid to admit if you don’t know something, or if you are still learning. By showing your own curiosity, you’re giving your pupil or child permission to be curious, too: creating a culture that prizes inquiring minds.
One of the most valuable things about tutoring is that it provides the opportunity to try new things and look at a topic in more depth. With this in mind, tutors have the freedom to try different exercises – things like mock interviews, press conferences, and even role-playing – to increase understanding of a certain theme and encourage the development of pertinent, powerful questions.
Don’t rush these opportunities. Often, a sense of wonder and curiosity needs time to develop: a slow pace allows a student to gather their thoughts, give into their imagination, and from there they’re able to formulate more complex responses. Allow them to go at their pace and really think about what piques their interest, and what they want to learn more about.