We stand at the cusp of the most academically productive months of the year. Consistent, predictable days and weeks lie ahead and we need to seize the opportunity to maximize our children’s benefit from it. If we could crystallize one skill, one ability that would ensure academic productivity and achievement, I would vote for a child’s ability and willingness to ask questions. Questions more often than not reflect curiosity, and curiosity is clearly a key to motivation to learn.
A recent article in one of the premier periodicals for educators – Educational Leadership (ASCD Sept. 2015, “What Children Learn from Questioning”, Harris, pps. 24-29) cited a “rich body of research” that demonstrates that young children are likely to ask many questions while at home, but this pattern shifts as they enter school. Specifically, an analysis of one study (Chouinard, 2007) found that when children were talking with a familiar adult at home, they asked one to three questions a minute, with two-thirds of the questions being the information-seeking type. How and why questions were asked by preschoolers at the rate of approximately 25 per hour! If we assume that ONLY one hour a day is spent in such conversation, a typical child will ask 20,000 explanation-seeking questions before his or her 5th birthday!
The author proceeded to examine the children’s reactions to the answers received from the adults, and found that the overwhelming number of how and why questions were not asked for the purpose of seeking attention, as we might suppose, but rather were genuine attempts to understand more about how the world works.
In school, the pattern shifts dramatically. While there are a fair number of questions asked in pre-school, the number drops even further when a child enters elementary school. The author suggests that a majority of students stop asking questions in school altogether. The question (that we adults need to ask) is why!? And is there something we parents can do about it?
There are certainly practical factors why the extended, intimate interactions that take place between parent and child at home cannot be replicated in a classroom with 20 – 25 students. Nevertheless, the kind of answer that a child receives, wherever and with whomever he is speaking, affects most profoundly the child’s willingness and interest in questioning further. As Rabbi Noach Orlowek tells teachers – “the goal in answering a student’s question is to get him to ask another question.” A child should feel safe and respected when asking a question, and the answer received must be genuine, and more often than not, correct. Answers like, “great question,” and “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure, but I can look into it,” or “let’s ask the Rav,” or “let’s look it up” or “what do you think?” are genuine and a beginning or continuation of the learning process.
A brief examination of the famous Gemara in Maseches Shabbos 31a, detailing the interchanges between the esteemed elder, Hillel, and the Babylonian who peppered him with questions for the express purpose of getting Hillel angry, may help shed some light. The Gemara points to Hillel’s exceptional humility as the key to his not getting upset at the questioner’s foolish, inappropriate inquiries. Clearly, we’re not expected to achieve such a level of humility, but we can benefit from understanding the connection between being humble and handling questions respectfully and constructively.
What we do learn from this Gemara is that there is potentially a lot of emotion underlying a question and answer routine. The one being questioned may be in a rush to get to something else, may feel inadequate because he or she doesn’t have a good answer but can’t admit it, may be insulted that the questioner didn’t listen to a previous explanation, and the list goes on. In the case of Hillel, he neither allowed the inconvenience of being interrupted from his Erev Shabbos preparations, or the obvious insincerity of the questioner to throw him. The fact he had an answer available was not the key – it was his extraordinary humility that created an environment where any question, no matter how preposterous, could be asked, with a real expectation of receiving a meaningful answer.
We need to realize that a child’s willingness to continue to ask meaningful and important questions is a result of the emotional environment we adults create. If our children consistently encounter adults who embrace and appreciate questions, they will grow in their inquisitiveness. If our children thereby strengthen their interest in seeking answers, the long-term impact on learning may very well spell the difference between achieving success or, unfortunately falling short of one’s potential.
May you enjoy a beautiful Shabbos, surrounded by eager questioners and knowledge seekers,
Rabbi Kalman Baumann