It no longer surprises me, but it still disappoints me, when I come across children in school who are reluctant to express their ideas.
I think this happens because they have become frightened of getting the answer wrong and looking foolish or ignorant.
This is surely a consequence of an education system that measures success largely by how many right answers children can remember?
In saying this I’m not in any way arguing for a ‘content-light’ curriculum: knowledge is often useful and interesting, and in an ideal world children would find much of it relevant.
What seems to be one of the problems is that we, as teachers and parents, are sometimes guilty of handing children knowledge without showing them how to handle knowledge; in other words how to manipulate it, make something out of it, make links and new understandings.
Think about children you know. Do you recognize any of these?
- A capable child who says nothing when a ‘right answer’ is called for.
- Negative self-judgement such as ‘I know this might sound stupid but…’
- An overly cautious response – ‘I could be wrong but… / I think perhaps it might be…’
- Children avoiding eye contact (in the classroom) when you’re searching for a child to give you the answer (I used to do this as a kid so I know it’s a sign!)
What we say and communicate to children is so important. Children MUST know that you value their thinking (not just the ‘right answer’).
- When we say ‘What do you think?’ we need to ensure it is always a sincere question and children know that you will give them sufficient thinking time to do just that.
- Don’t be tempted to jump in with the answer too soon – there is nothing more certain to deflate a child’s bravery. (Why would you bother to start thinking if you know that the adult will do it for you?)
- Facts are provisional until we can decide otherwise. Encourage children not to take ‘facts’ as the truth – they need to investigate.
- Asking is intelligent behaviour. When you (anyone) ask a question it doesn’t mean ‘I’m ignorant’, it means ‘I want to find out more’. Encourage lots of questions from children.
- If you’re a parent perhaps one of the things you should ask your child on a regular basis is ‘How many questions did you ask today?’ What was your best question?’
- Imagination is more important than knowledge (Einstein)
When children understand these ‘ground rules’ they can help to fix the ethos of the classroom or the culture of learning at home.
There should be a ‘spirit of enquiry’ as the driving force behind children’s learning.
You can make a start today with this simple activity:
Show children an ambiguous shape such as the ones below and ask,
‘What could this be, what does it remind you of?’ or ‘What do you make of it?’
*NB This is a safe question because it has no single right answer and a child isn’t risking failure and humiliation when (s)he says ‘ship's anchor or pick axe'
When you then later ask the same question in a more challenging context like asking them to infer or deduce something in a story or another piece of text they’ve read (possibly when ‘right answers’ are required) they will be less phased by you asking them the same questions.
And will hopefully be on their way to becoming a braver learner.
(Thanks to Steve Bowkett)
Our Starters for Thinking cards provide a pack of ready - made open ended questions.