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What have we been missing in all the debates about education reform? The question. In this photo, Dr. Albert Einstein writes out an equation for the density of the Milky Way on the blackboard at the Carnegie Institute, Mt. Wilson Observatory headquarters in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 14, 1931. (AP)

Today marks the 135th birthday of that great genius of the 20th century, Albert Einstein. Indeed, the words “Genius” and “Einstein” are forever linked. One of the keys to Einstein’s genius was his determination to never stop questioning, to “never lose a holy curiosity.”

The case for the importance of questions has just been taken up anew by author Warren Berger. In his book, “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas,” Berger highlights the catalytic power of questions across many fields. They lead directly to innovations in technology, medicine, industry and more. The evidence is so compelling that it leads to… well, a question:

If questions are essential for learning and discovery, why aren’t more schools deliberately teaching the skill of question formulation? Schools of education train teachers to ask questions of their students, but rarely prepare them to teach students how to ask their own. There are, certainly, a few pockets of the educational universe where questions are actively encouraged. But, generally, the number of questions students ask as they make it through their school years actually declines. There’s something wrong with this picture.

One of the keys to Einstein’s genius was his determination to never stop questioning, to ‘never lose a holy curiosity.’

Teaching the simple, but sophisticated skill of asking questions would actually strengthen instruction in the “3 Rs” (reading, writing and arithmetic) which loom large for how both students and schools are assessed. It should be obvious: A student who knows how to ask questions will read, write and compute better than one who does not. And, if we still believe that schools have a citizen-building role, then, it is all the more urgent that we help students develop the ability to ask questions as a foundational problem-solving and democratic skill. We can imagine a dictatorship that doesn’t encourage questions. But we should expect more from a democracy.

The skill can be taught. I’ve observed how novice as well as veteran teachers can learn to pivot from always asking questions of students to deliberately teaching them to ask their own. The changes — in even the most challenged students — are striking. A second-grader in a Chicago elementary school shared, after learning to ask her own questions: “Now, I feel like I can figure things out for myself.”

In McComb, Mississippi, students in a middle school became more sophisticated question-askers and took their new skill from classroom to classroom, provoking several teachers to note that they had never seen the students so excited about learning as when they were asking their own questions.

In a Boston Public School remedial summer program for high school students, a teacher deliberately and consistently taught the skill of question formulation. By the end of the program, her students felt they were “getting good at this question thing.” One student said: “It makes me feel smart.”

Even the already recognized “smart folks,” including the scientist Stuart Firestein of Columbia University and author of “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” often say that their work rests on a foundation of good questions. But, too often, students (and young scientists) acquire the skill only through years of trial and error.

Brandeis University’s associate provost of innovation in education, Dan Perlman, is changing that pattern in his biology classes. He begins his courses with students learning how to ask and improve their own questions. He reinforces the skill through the semester and concludes the course by having students ask questions about the same topic they focused on at the beginning of the course. The students are struck by how their questions “are now much deeper. They show how much more we’ve learned and how much more we can learn.”

If questions are essential for learning and discovery, why aren’t more schools deliberately teaching the skill of question formulation?

When I saw Professor Perlman’s students actively engaged in their learning just by asking questions, I thought of another science teacher in a very different environment. He’s teaching in a middle school with all low-income students along the Texas-Mexico border. In a brief morning training with a teaching mentor, he learned one method for teaching students to ask their own questions. Later that day as the mentor left the school, he told her: “I need to talk with you. I went back and changed my lesson plan for the afternoon to show you that this could not work with our kids. I’m embarrassed to say we’ve been underestimating how well our kids can think when given the right tools.”

This Texas middle school teacher is on to the importance of respecting how well our students can think. Give them a chance to learn to ask their own questions and watch their minds go to work. They become self-directed learners, just like the Chicago second grader who was excited to realize that she “could figure things out” on her own. A small pedagogical shift in practice made that happen. It’s a simple, low-cost recipe for more academic success and more joy for teachers and students alike. It doesn’t take a real “Einstein” to see that.

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  • Teri D

    Einstein dropped out of school — that’s probably why he actually maintained his childhood curiosity. Maybe there is a lesson there.

  • http://www.judydunn.net/ Judy D

    There is a certain beauty to the fact that Einstein was born on “Pi Day”!
    I remember thinking if I asked a question it meant I was stupid. It took me a long time to get over that way of thinking. Curiosity, Creativity,…perhaps we need some C’s along with the R’s.

  • Patricia Leahy

    The fear of asking questions is life long. So grateful to folks like Fernando Flores, Peter Senge at MIT & Chris Argyris @ Harvard B School for helping people leaders to become continuous learners through INQUIRY. Amazing the issues ignored because management could not admit they didn’t know an answer. Interesting too, that my brother, an engineer, first lesson in engineering school was: I don’t know but I know how to find out! Used that as my model for 40 years and the outcomes were compelling. So glad we are finally coming to grips with critical thinking skills.

    • Doug the Trainer

      Patricia, I think you are implying that some managers are reluctant to ask questions of their subordinates for fear of being viewed as incompetent. I used to be that manager, and since I have learned to ask questions, my employees and me, and the organization are much better off because we are finally innovating and getting the full potential from the team. Thanks so much for you post.

  • paul

    Interesting story, but terrible headline. Please don’t use the gimmick of the “do X using this one weird trick” style of hook. For example, there is currently a CNN.com headline “See why this reporter got smacked.” I expect that at CNN but not here.

  • eugenecantera

    I am so thankful that I was encouraged to ask questions, and thankful that my teachers and mentors were patient enough to answer them, over and over. I encourage my students to ask often – to seek out those things that are interesting to them, and to keep learning every day. With all the technology and data available at our fingertips, there’s no reason to be bored and to carry on in the dark. A wise old teacher used to tell us in msuic school, “if you don;t know, ask” – we thgouht he was a crazy old man, but he was spot on.

  • NikNIkkel

    It certainly would have been interesting to attend a school that welcomed “holy curiosity” instead of driving a stake through its heart. But, hey, that was the 50’s. I am sure things have changed for the better.

  • Cyril B. Saulny

    Einstein was also a card carrying member of the NAACP in the State of New Jersey. He was indeed, very forward thinking!

  • BForlaw

    This is as true for adult learners as it is for children. In fact, if more children learned to learn by asking questions, maybe we would have more enlightened adults.

  • CrankyFranky

    I teach young adults in a community college where most are simply preferring to stay on the public purse to avoid getting a job – it’s pretty tough to motivate some of them – I’m starting to form the opinion that the selfi(sh?) generation is so used to staring at screens that actually engaging in face-to-face conversation can seem quite disturbing to them – huh ? blank looks – I reckon too long alone with a dim glow – affects their ability to respond to questions from a real human in person …

  • thomasrolt

    Isn’t Knowledge Power? I agree, go easy on the titles…

  • b

    “Ask Questions” is a scientific practice specifically included in the new Next Generation Science Standards. It remains to be seen how those standards are implemented, whether teachers will be well-supported in addressing them, etc – but you’re right, and the educators who drew up the NGSS were well aware of that. Hopefully more explicit practice in asking good questions will soon be coming to a science classroom near you!

  • Lynne Bland

    Kevin, The idea is to give students something TO question. For instance, in the book MAKE JUST ONE CHANGE TEACH STUDENTS TO ASK THEIR OWN QUESTIONS by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, a teacher provides a Question Focus (Qfocus): Torture is Justified. To me, this is a provocative idea. Giving students this focus and encouraging them to question it leads to many questions for research and discussion. When students see this topic it hits a nerve but they don’t always understand why. I encourage students to consider the helping words of Who, What, Where, When, Why, How and so on. Questions they might come up with are: Who thinks torture is justified? When would torture be justified? Why is torture justified? This goes on.. I have noticed questions begin as simple and evolve for deeper meaning. I have engaged this protocol in classrooms and board meetings. Check out the book. It is great and will guide your planning.

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