Everyday Teaching: How to teach through questions

Teaching children at home.

Teachers stress that knowing facts, dates, and precise answers is fundamental to education. Many argue that the memorization of dates, names and formulas is the foundation of all knowledge. They are not wrong! But continuing educational research has shown that not only knowledge is critical, but also the analysis and application of these ideas.

To this point, a gifted science teacher showed our faculty how to create lessons for children. By pulling out the topics in her syllabus, she inverted them into questions: “What is emulsion?” or “What are acids and bases?” This technique provoked her students’ thinking. Each learner could contribute. Parents at home can easily adapt this. By simply Googling “what every kid should know by grade __,” they can develop open-ended questions. Practice asking these questions, and really listen to the responses.

Open-ended questions such as “What if,” “How come,” or “Why” work much better than “Did you know?” If you grill them on knowledge like they are on “Jeopardy,” they may lose interest quickly, but if you ponder aloud, “Why does water boil?” you may receive some interesting answers. These answers give kids some agency when you accept multiple responses. By giving kids such opportunity to add their ideas, it also increases their initiative, decision-making, and autonomy.

After all, everyone learns best from mistakes. Think about toddlers at play. How many attempts does each make to get one thing right? Play may be one of the best models for teaching at home, since it requires repetition and determination. Every time my 2-year-old neighbor next door slides down her slide, I hear clapping and cheering from her family as if she had just crossed the finish line at a marathon. Such enthusiasm for throwing a ball or writing one’s name for the first time is natural to parents of little children; however, sometime around the fourth grade, expectations from adults unrealistically rise. True, false rewards and fake enthusiasm by parents are painfully transparent to kids, but setting more opportunities for them to have their ideas included at the dinner table might just motivate.

Howard Gardner from the Harvard Graduate School of Education writes that it is the continuous relearning and retrying of ideas that make us truly educated. We all start out with many misconceptions as a child; however, through investigation and study, we make clear those primary ideas. In fact, our pandemic has truly revealed some primitive ideas about medicine.

At home this spring and summer, take time to develop open-ended questions. Explore the mixups children possess. In fact, celebrate such misunderstandings as opportunities for further investigations, mull them over, and research them. Rather than simply correcting one another, families can be the source of autonomous learning. With your captive audience, parents are the everyday teacher. Learning from questions is much more fun.