“Hi honey, what did you learn today?”
As the parent of a child in elementary school, who has just begun her formal educational journey, I am not alone in thinking and rethinking the choices we make when it comes to educating our kids. The educational system, as we call it, is only as good as the people involved. Whether it’s the educators – teachers, tutors, facilitators, counselors etc, the parents or the students themselves, it’s fair to believe that eventually, the quality of education a child receives ultimately comes down to a small group of individuals. We can talk about national standards, racing to the top, standardized testing scores and curricula all we want, but at the end of the day, what and how much a child learns depends on what motivates and moves the people in her life the most and the environment she grows up in. And more often than not, a child’s learning success is not the result of decisions and efforts taken at a macro level, but the day-to-day experiences and stimuli she receives.
In general, I enjoy observing children and how they learn. The process by itself is fascinating and holds most of the answers to key questions that should be shaping our educational system and curriculum design. I have come to believe firmly that the single most important aspect of learning that should be taken into consideration before we launch any kind of teaching method or evaluation standards is the number and kind of questions a child asks.
It appears that as a society, we focus way too much on answers rather than questions. While this is not a healthy sign of true development in general, it is all the more dangerous when it comes to educating and evaluating our youngest, brightest and most curious minds.
One of the best measures of a child’s intelligence is her ability to think and reason unreservedly. The ability to ask important and intelligent questions by itself reflects a great deal about the child’s potential to think, reason, analyze, comprehend and assimilate information. Moreover, when a child asks a question, she is in the most receptive state of mind possible – ready to explore, listen, absorb and understand. She presents what most teachers will tell you is impossible to achieve in today’s classrooms – a conducive learning environment with open, eager, receptive minds. So, if you have a child who raises her hand to ask a question, the teacher’s job then is simply to gently take the child’s hand and lead her on the path of discovery and learning – not by showing or telling her the answer but by helping her choose one of the ways that will lead her to it. And beyond.
They say that the best way to become a master at something is by teaching others how to do it. By extension, the best way to keep learning is by asking questions and not necessarily knowing all the answers.
Lest we forget, every invention and discovery imaginable today began with a quest. Not a solution.
Why then are we so focused on our children getting answers right rather than encouraging them to ask questions? Why is there no extra credit for the best questions? Instead of text books that have answers, why don’t we adopt an educational format where students start with a blank slate, initiating their own learning with the questions that crop up in their beautiful little heads?
Although this is something that has been bothering me for a while, what prompted me to publish this post tonight is the fact that my child began her new school year this past week. After 2 fantastic months of summer vacation where we traveled, read, explored, endured, wondered and played, I sent her back to school to learn. And here’s what I noticed.
I saw M at her curious best the past 2 months. Some of the questions she posed over summer boggled my mind and left me speechless momentarily. Although I may have managed to offer the text books answers I remembered to most questions and looked up some of the others that I didn’t quite know how to answer – what pleased and thrilled me was that her mind was on learning overdrive over summer.
For instance, some of her recent questions include:
1. Why is there a sound when we clap?
2. Who discovered the temperature of the sun? How did they measure it if it’s so hot?
3. If stars, planets and galaxies are so far away, then how do we know so much about them? Who are these scientists who study all this anyway and how do we know for sure that they are right?
4. Why do I have an ear tag? What is its purpose and why doesn’t everyone have one?
5. Why can I see Grandma’s veins by not my own?
6. How fast does the earth spin and how come we don’t get thrown off of it?
7. Was Lord Rama alive when the dinosaurs were here? Who is older - the dinosaurs or the Gods? How do we know?
8. Did you know that when you close your eyes in a dark room, you can see yellow circles? Why is that and what are those?
… And so on…
While I’m sure that the questions themselves aren’t new and that M is one among the millions of children around the world asking them, what thrills me is that the love for learning is alive and kicking in all these kids.
Coming back to what concerns me – Although M seems happy with her new class, her teacher and has even managed to make a few new friends in under a week, she hasn’t asked me a single question ever since she started school. She has instead told me what her teacher has told the class and if she’s in a good mood, she tells me what she has ‘learned’, but I’m worried that in my effort to educate her, I may be slowing or even preventing to some extent, her learning. For the sake of all children and the future of our world, I certainly hope this is not the case.
May the curiosity in our children be alive forever. May there be no easy answers. Long live questions! And I hope my M will never stop asking them.