Why Aren’t These Students Asking Questions? Teaching the Most Important 21st Century Skill
“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge” – Thomas Berger
“He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.” – Mark Twain
Several years ago I attended an education conference in San Francisco and one of the highlights was a session exploring a question-asking technique pioneered and taught by the Right Question Institute. While learning a creative method to get students to consider what makes a question “good” or not, I also came away with an observation made by the presenter that has stuck with me ever since: by the time kids reach kindergarten, they have already peaked in their willingness to ask questions aloud.
On the face of it, this fact shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s spent time around young kids. My own four- and seven-year-old kids can, at times, drive me over the edge with their never-ending questions. However, as a high school English teacher, my students can drive me nearly as crazy with their reluctance to ask questions about whatever we happen to be reading or studying. While I dream of some day running a classroom in which I am an almost unnecessary facilitator and together the students drill into a work of literature or rhetoric with questions that expose not only the plot intricacies but the subtextual underbelly of the work, the reality is that most teenagers need lots of practice and theory in the question asking realm before their innate curiosity can be fully unleashed. Or, I should say, re-unleashed, because at age five, most of these stressed out teens were as full of questions as a Jeopardy contestant.
The stakes for students learning to ask their own questions could not be much higher. Colleges and white-collar careers alike require inquisitive people; just as important, our democracy requires citizens who can debunk fake news, get to the heart of pressing issues, and see through deceptive politicians. Yet, sometimes encouraging students to ask important questions is a teacher’s most challenging task. In one unit I teach to freshmen, each student is tasked with becoming an expert in a single character from The Iliad. Then, in character, they are peppered by questions from their classmates who are playing the role of journalists, all searching for juicy quotes to use in their newspaper article identifying the hero of the Trojan War (which will become their next assignment). The kind of creative, curious questions these young students ask one another is fun and inspiring, and it leads to some incredible exchanges that deepen everyone’s understanding of the poem. Exercises like this make me realize that all hope is not lost on the questioning front; teenagers are capable of asking great questions under the right circumstances, and if teachers prioritize developing this crucial aspect of students’ skill set, we can help them think more critically and deeply.
In Greek mythology, Paris, a Trojan prince who is asked to judge which of three Olympian goddesses is the fairest chooses based on the bribes each offers him; as a result, he is promised the most beautiful mortal woman, Helen, who Paris abducts from her husband, King of Sparta, thus starting the Trojan War. In this audio clip, a student, playing Paris, answers some interesting questions from inquisitive journalists, and also gives some creative, plausible answers.