tried again: “I’ve cut it in . . . ?” After
four such unsuccessful attempts to
elicit the answer she was looking for,
the teacher supplied it herself: “I’ve cut
it . . . in half” (overlooking the fact that
June had spontaneously introduced
this concept when she made her initial
In a provocative study of social
studies lessons in grades 3–6, Edwin
Susskind (1979) compared teachers’
views about questions in the classroom
with reality. He began by asking
teachers how many questions they
actually asked in class and what the
desirable number of questions to ask
would be. Happily, the two figures
were similar—teachers reckoned that,
on average, they asked a question
every two minutes, which was also
the rate they judged to be desirable.
Teachers thought that the students
should also ask a question every two
minutes, but they believed that their
students fell somewhat short of that
ideal, asking a question every three
With these data in hand, Susskind
went on to observe the actual rate of
questions in 32 classrooms. It turned
out that teachers asked a lot more
questions than they realized—almost
two questions a minute. Student questions, on the other hand, occurred at
a rate of only about three or four per
hour. Putting this another way, the
teachers thought that it would be good
if they asked questions at the same
rate as their students, but they actually
asked questions nearly 30 times as
When we consider that the data
Becoming More Aware
were aggregated across the entire
class of students, we can see that the
majority of students were sitting in
class for hours without asking a single
question—a sharp contrast to the
pattern observed among preschoolers
at home. Admittedly, classroom
practices may have changed since
Susskind’s study was carried out,
but given the continuing constraints
on teachers, we’re probably still a
long way from replicating in schools
the frequent how and why questions
Chouinard observed between young
children and their caregivers.
Young children ask lots of questions
at home, and they follow up on the
answers with more questions. It’s clear
that they’re genuinely seeking information. But when children enter preschool, the pattern changes; there, the
teacher tends to ask the questions. By
the time they’re in grade school, many
students ask no questions whatsoever.
In an interesting aside on his work
with teachers, Susskind explains that
when he reported his findings back
to them, several dismissed them as
nonsense. Only when they agreed to
tape their classes and analyze the tapes
themselves did they acknowledge how
many questions they asked and how
few their students asked.
The lesson for other teachers: If we
listen carefully, both to ourselves and
to our students, we can become more
aware of whether our classrooms
provide the supportive environments
children need to get the greatest benefits from their early tendency to ask
Author’s note: I am grateful to Catherine
Snow, who contributed to this article with
helpful information concerning the curriculum and the role of questions in U.S.
preschools and schools.
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Paul Harris (firstname.lastname@example.org
.edu) is Victor S. Thomas Professor of
Education, Harvard Graduate School
of Education. His most recent book is
Trusting What You’re Told: How Children
Learn from Others (Harvard University
Most adults who spend time with preschool
children will need little persuasion that they’re
capable of asking a lot of questions.