At about 18 months, children start asking questions. At first, they tend to only use the question word “who” or “what”, then around the age of 3 they discover “why”.
Like the flow of a river, the whys can rush in all directions, which is natural, and all we have to do is to guide them a little over time, but by no means should we try to limit them completely. After all, questions are part of the learning process.
Asking questions is a good sign. Because if we don’t understand something at all, we can’t ask about it. We usually ask questions when there is a break in our chain of thought; we inquire about the missing link to connect it. Or, we ask questions if we are not sure if we have understood something correctly. You can learn efficiently if questions lead you to new ideas, elegantly enabling the experience of gaining knowledge. This is because the new knowledge is incorporated much more easily and with better efficiency than it would have been if we were never able to ask questions.
Some interesting data emerged from a survey conducted by Havigova in Czech schools ten years ago. According to her research, children only ask 20% of the questions asked in class. The questions asked by the teachers mostly relate to memory and do not specifically stimulate thinking. In other words, they are often of this nature: “Didn’t we already discuss this in our last class?” or when was battle x?
There can also be huge differences between cultures, due to the power balance between the teacher and the student, as in how much a student is allowed to ask questions in class. If you have read The Japanese Lover by Amelie Nothomb, you may remember the scene when the Belgian university student, against her will, incurs the wrath of the Japanese university professors by asking a lot of questions, which she, being Belgian, finds completely normal.
This reminds me of a story of my own. If not for weeks, but for many days, I racked my brains when writing my thesis, when I had already completed the 250-page analysis of the data, asking myself: what question did I actually get an answer to?
But back to the children. In January a little girl from Mexico joined my class. She was about to study first grade in a German school without knowing a single word of German. She proudly started second grade last week, but that didn’t stop her from putting her hand up as soon as she got her worksheet and saying that her dad told her to do everything at school, because he couldn’t help her at home. Based on a given text, he had to colour in figures on a page. She didn’t fully understand the text, so she quickly asked about the unknown words and since we had another language in common, we solved the task quickly.
If only the vocabulary is missing, this can be remedied easily. Nowadays, in any language, you can look up a translation in a digital dictionary instantly, in the language that the child knows.
However, for this you must be brave enough to ask. If the child can ask a lot of questions at home, they will be more able to cope at school as well.
When you are just practising asking questions, we can help you by highlighting other people’s particularly clever approaches to asking questions and praising them for it. As well as this, we can help by spending time searching for the answers to questions which don’t have easy answers. It also helps children learn if we show them that there are things that we look up in a dictionary, there are things that we look up in a textbook, and others that we look up online, on a phone or on a laptop. So, we draw the child’s attention to the diversity of sources.
Don’t forget to ask questions about the information you find. After all, while in the past information was a privilege and we were happy to have access to it, nowadays there is more and more fake information. That’s why we should always be on the lookout and pass this on to the children: the courage to ask questions and to let them be asked.