findings suggest that, on the contrary,
answering children’s questions helps
them think for themselves.
When Children Go to School
The young children discussed so far
were recorded in their own homes,
talking to a familiar adult, typically
their mother. What happens when
children go to school? Do they ask lots
of questions there as well?
In the study of English 4-year-olds
described earlier, Tizard and Hughes
(1984) recorded the conversations of
4-year-olds not just at home with their
mothers, but also in nursery school.
The children behaved quite differently
in the two settings. They asked many
more questions at home; indeed, they
often asked a series of interconnected
questions, all probing the same topic.
In nursery school, this kind of sustained dialogue almost never occurred.
Why do children ask fewer ques-
tions at school? One obvious expla-
nation is that the home setting and the
school setting are different social con-
texts. A teacher surrounded by a dozen
or more children might have few prac-
tical opportunities to engage in a long
dialogue with a single child. Another
possibility is that a teacher is less
likely than a parent to have a detailed
knowledge of an individual child’s
knowledge base, idiosyncratic prefer-
ences, and family history, making
appropriate answers more difficult.
Beyond these practical considerations, however, it’s plausible that a
pedagogic factor is at work. Tizard
and Hughes noticed not only that
children had fewer and shorter conversations with teachers than with
their mothers, but also that the tenor
of those conversations was different.
First, teachers tended to talk more
than the child, whereas conversations
in the home were more evenly balanced. Second, teachers characteristically asked a series of questions, and
the child’s primary role was answering
them. These exchanges often involved
teachers probing for a specific answer,
sometimes in vain and sometimes
For example, consider 4-year-old
June. She went to her teacher with a
piece of paper and asked, “Can you
cut that in half?” Having obliged, the
teacher seized on a teaching moment.
“How many pieces of paper have you
got?” she asked. “Two” said June. The
teacher went on: “Two. What have I
done if I’ve cut it down the middle?”
“Two pieces” said June. The teacher
To encourage students to listen to their inner voice, I ask
students, “What do you wonder about?” and “What
questions come to mind?” Without having to worry
about what the teacher wants to hear, students’
“wonders” provide a window into their thinking.
Positive teacher reaction encourages more questions
and sets the climate for creative exploration.
When I asked these questions after teaching
photosynthesis to 8th graders, Josh responded, “I wonder
what it would take to use carbon dioxide as fuel?” Because there is
current research on this very topic going on at Stanford and MIT, I
encouraged Josh to see what he could find out. Without the invitation
to wonder, Josh may never have said anything.
To help students analyze why pioneers were willing to risk
everything and head west, a 4th grade teacher asked, “What do you
wonder about?” The discussion that followed took analysis to a new
level as the students questioned the motives, resources, challenges,
and costs involved.
When students are encouraged to wonder, they tap into their
creativity and begin to trust their ability to generate insights, make
connections, and enhance their own learning.
—Betty K. Garner, consultant at Aesthetic of Lifelong Learning,
author of Getting to “Got It!” (ASCD, 2007), Gig Harbor, Washington
For more great questions suggested by our readers, see our “Tell Me About”
column on p. 90.
NOW THAT’S A GOOD QUESTION!
What Do You Wonder About?
When children ask a
why or how question,