Encouraging and Handling Children’s Questions

We all ask questions when we want to know something, or when we are puzzled or curious about something. Our questions show what we do not know and what we would like to know. Children’s questions are no different; they give an important lead to what the children have already understood and what they have not understood.

They mark the cutting edge of children’s learning. Sometimes, too, in the way they are expressed, children’s questions indicate their pre-conceptions (as when a young girl looked at a particularly aggressive looking cactus plant and asked ‘Is there an animal inside it?’).

Encouraging and Handling Children's Questions

Encouraging and Handling Children’s Questions [Published by:National Book Trust & Unesco Publishing]

Thus encouraging children to ask all kinds of questions is important, for through this means they can fill in some links between one experience and another, and gain the help they need in making sense of their experience.

But scientific activity can only answer certain kinds of questions, ones which ask about what there is in the world around and how it behaves. In answer to these kinds of questions assertions can be made which can be verified by investigation.

Examples are ‘Does wood float in water?’ ‘Do trees grow at the top of high mountains?’ In contrast there are questions such as ‘Should happiness be the aim of life?’ or ‘What is the nature of knowledge?’ which are philosophical and not answerable by scientific inquiry.

There are also questions of human motivation (‘Why do martyrs sacrifice their lives?’) and of aesthetic judgement (‘Which of these pieces of music is most attractive?’) which are quite different from the kinds of question answered by science.

Recognising the difference between different kinds of questions is important for teachers in helping them respond to children’s questions. It is also necessary so that children can be encouraged, within science activities, to pose questions which they can answer by action.

This chapter attempts to give teachers help in developing the skills of encouraging certain kinds of questions while being capable of handling all kinds of questions which children constantly ask.

Here are some questions which children asked when they met a marine biologist. (The age of the child involved is in brackets following each question.)

Is it possible that there are creatures we don’t know about at the bottom of the sea? (10)
Why are crabs inside out? (8)
How do sea urchins swim? (5)
How do you become a marine biologist? (11)
Why is the sea salty? (6)
How old is the oldest fish? (9)
Why do fishes live under water? (6)
What is the average age that fish live to? (11)
Why do some sharks eat people and some don’t? (9)

These are the sort of questions children ask about a subject they are interested in; the sort which are very difficult even for an expert to answer and in some cases impossible to answer in a way which could be understood by children of the age who asked them.

This may or may not be comforting to the primary-school teacher, who is not a marine expert and yet is the one who will be asked similar questions on this and every other subject by the children!

It also may or may not be comforting to know that it is quite often not the best thing to do to attempt to answer the child’s question, because:

Children can be deterred from questioning if they receive answers which they cannot understand.

A question is not always what it seems (in other words, it does not always require an answer).

Giving the answer may prevent children from finding it out and learning something in their own terms.

Instead of thinking that every question has to be answered, it is best to study questions and learn how to handle them, not necessarily to answer them. We can categorize most of children’s questions into five types:

1. Questions which are not asked for information but are really comments expressed as questions (‘Why are birds so clever that they can weave nests with their breaks?’).

2. Questions requiring simple factual answers which can be readily understood by the child (‘Where was this bird’s nest found?’)

3. Questions which would require complex answers which the child would be unlikely to understand (“Why do some birds build nests and other don’t?”)

4. Questions which could readily be answered by the child through investigation or inquiry (‘What is the nest made of?’)

5. Philosophical questions (‘Do birds enjoy making their nests?’)

As an exercise try categorizing each of the questions to the marine biologist. (Note that some questions might be capable of simple answers but still be ones which children could investigate for themselves. These should be categorized as [4].)

Do this first by yourself and then, if there is an opportunity, discuss your results with others and try to reconcile any differences.

Questions in category (4) are the most productive for science activities and the ones we should encourage children to ask. This can be done by example, when teachers ask questions which encourage scientific activity. It is worth practising the skill and the following exercise is designed to do this.

Teachers’ questions which encourage active learning

Imagine that a child comes up to you, his or her teacher, and proudly shows you a leaf that he or she finds interesting and has picked up on the way to school. What question about the leaf can you ask the child that will start him or her investigating scientifically? (Such questions may not be the first response to the child but they are appropriate at some point and so need to be thought out.)

Information questions

Promote science as information.

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