Q: I'm an undergraduate in education, and I'm baby-sitting several 5-year-olds this summer. They are driving me crazy with questions: why, why, why! How can I use their curiosity to develop their brains, even if I don't know the answers?
A: You're thinking like a good teacher. You want kids' pestering questions (e.g., Why does the traffic officer wear a green vest? What makes a rainbow?) to become great learning opportunities.
Research suggests young students learn more when you turn the questions back on them. Respond with questions that get them to:
-- Clarify their thinking. ("Why do you ask that?")
-- Challenge assumptions. ("Do all police officers wear green vests?")
-- Identify evidence. ("What happens when we see a rainbow?")
-- Consider implications and consequences. ("What if she didn't wear a green vest?")
Robert Sternberg, a leading scholar on developing higher-order thinking (HOT) skills, has outlined seven levels of potential responses to kids' questions. Granted, no parent or teacher has the time (or patience) to treat every question with a detailed HOT response, but the higher the level your response, the more thinking you're asking a child to do.
-- Level 1: Reject the question. ("Because I said so.")
-- Level 2: Restate the question as a response. ("Why is it so hot?" "It's hot because it's 97 degrees outside and 90 percent humidity.")
-- Level 3: Admit you don't know. ("I'm not sure, but that's a good question.")
-- Level 4: Consult an authority. ("Who might know the answer?")
-- Level 5: Brainstorm explanations. ("You think that she wears a green vest because it's bullet-proof?" "Who else has an idea?")
-- Level 6: Consider ways to evaluate explanations. ("Where would we find out more about green traffic-safety vests?")
-- Level 7: Follow through on evaluations. ("Let's look for information about the vests. We can search the Internet, or call or visit the police department to learn more.")
Research by Cristine Legare at the University of Texas shows that it's important for parents and teachers to be aware of where they're focusing children's attention when they ask for explanations.
Legare and colleagues showed 96 children, ages 3 to 5, a complex toy. It had colorful, interlocking gears with a crank on one end and a propeller on the other. They asked half the kids, "Can you explain this to me?" The other half were told, "Look, isn't this interesting?"
Children who were asked to explain their toy focused on the chain of gears working together to eventually turn the propeller when they turned the crank. This group was better able to re-create the toy and transfer their learning about how gears work to new projects. The group that was merely told it was interesting noticed the toy's colors and could remember the colors better than the first group.
The results make the case for explicit, intentional questioning. "We can't assume what we want to teach is something kids are just going to pick up on," said Legare.
Try these techniques and by summer's end, you'll be an expert questioner -- even if you don't know the answers!
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)