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September 1, 2015
Vol. 73
No. 1

Asking to Learn

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Students' questions aren't just portholes into the thoughts they already have, they are the seeds of thought itself.

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Albert Einstein supposedly once said, "If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask." In his company are a legion of visionaries throughout history—including Jonas Salk, Jane Goodall, Steve Jobs, and Virginia Woolf—who have attributed their insights to asking the right questions.
Recently, a team of researchers interviewed hundreds of today's top creative minds to understand how innovation and discovery work. As it turned out, these individuals had little in common except that every one of them was skilled in the art of asking great questions (Dyer, Gregerson & Christiansen, 2011).
In a way, all knowledge results from questioning. Asking begins with not knowing but wanting to know, a state Piaget (1973) called disequilibrium. His research showed that it was the child's discomfort of not knowing that set curiosity and inquiry in motion. If learning consists of exploring and making sense of things, then questioning is the call to action that ignites learning. Yet, although educators extol the virtues of creativity and insight in learners, questioning—the engine of transformative and critical thinking—is rarely taught or even rewarded in the classroom.
In school, questions tend to come from the teacher. These questions are often designed to get students thinking. Teachers' questions, at their best, invite students to challenge their own assumptions, to engage, and to join larger dialogues. Such questioning can model creative and critical ways of examining the content at hand. But even at their most inspiring, teachers' questions guide students' thinking along some predetermined path. They are designed to elicit correct answers, or at least answers within a certain framework of thinking.
Genuine questioning, in contrast, is a pattern of behavior—a way of being—that forges new paths and challenges assumptions. A student who has developed into a questioner will wonder, "Why are we doing this particular thing in this particular way?" (Berger, 2014). Such students can approach any content and find a new way to consider or investigate it.
If educators are interested in fostering deep student learning (including the habits of mind of creativity, innovation, and critique), we need to go beyond posing our interesting questions. Our end goal must be to teach students how to articulate their own questions—and while they're at it, to question everything around them.
Here are six reasons most powerful learning occurs when students ask the questions.

1. Student questioning ignites intrinsic motivation.

Asking questions that they are genuinely interested in knowing the answers to activates in students an internal desire for action, what psychologists call intrinsic motivation. A century of research on learning shows that, whether we're talking about rats or 4th graders, without motivation there is no learning. Not surprisingly, intrinsically motivated students learn better than those who are pushed by external rewards or punishments (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 2001).
Lucky for us, children come into the world endlessly motivated. But when the impetus for learning starts to come from outside, as often happens in school, they begin to focus on giving the teacher what he or she wants (what my colleagues and I refer to as "playing the game of school"). Students become less involved in the learning process or activity itself, and more involved in the outcomes—getting the correct answers to questions posed by those in power.
In a classic study, researchers at Stanford promised some children a "good player award" for working on an art project; other children were simply invited to work on the same art project with no reward. The children who got the award were less interested in working with the art materials during later free-play sessions, compared with those who had simply been allowed to enjoy the activity without being rewarded (Lepper & Greene, 1975). A more recent meta-analysis of 128 separate experiments showed that external rewards for learning (like gold stars) undermined intrinsic motivation, competence, and self-determination, especially in children (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 2001).
When it comes to questioning that fuels learning, sincere wonder is also best. Cifone (2013) catalogued 8-year-old students' questioning behaviors as they completed a problem-solving task. The questions that the children came up with on their own were much more likely to lead to further inquiry than the questions the researchers or others asked them. Cifone noted,
The critical factor was that what the children said and did came from themselves, as a personal question …. Even if someone else originally asked a question, it only became a genuine question for the students when they asked it themselves. (p. 52)

2. Questioning in school maintains children's natural tendency to question.

From the time they can talk, children hit the conversational ground asking. A preschooler's questions can range anywhere from "What's for lunch?" to "Why am I a person?" Asking questions is what children's brains were born to do. When a child encounters something that he or she doesn't know or understand, the child uses questions to quickly gather information, learn about the world, and solve immediate problems (Chouinard, Harris, & Maratsos, 2007).
Children's questions have been studied as clues to the workings of the developing mind. In one study, preschool-age children were wired with recording devices that recorded everything they said during a typical day. The children asked an average of 76 information-seeking questions per hour, in search of both facts and explanations, with one child asking her poor mother 145 questions in a single hour (Chouinard et al., 2007). "Question-asking," these researchers concluded, "is a central part of what it means to be a child" (p. 25).
But recent research suggests that entering school can halt student questioning. Susan Engel (2011), who also has an article in this issue, wanted to understand what happens to preschoolers, typically so inquisitive, as they entered kindergarten. She and her team went into elementary schools and noted any time a child asked a question in order to learn more, tinkered with a classroom object, or used other gestures to show curiosity. In kindergarten classrooms, episodes of curiosity averaged about two to five during any two-hour stretch. By 5th grade, self-generated questioning was strikingly absent, with zero to two episodes per visit being average. In other words, most children were spending seven or more hours of their day in school without asking even one question. If we designed our curriculums to let the students ask more of the questions, we might avoid squashing their inherent wonder.

3. Questioning activates the prefrontal cortex.

Neuroscientists have begun to discover that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for the combined questioning and critical thinking that underlie inquiry. When students take initiative, make plans and set goals, and integrate and synthesize information, they are using their prefrontal cortex (Fleming, 2010). One study showed that the ability to think in intellectually creative ways (including the ability to pose unique, thoughtful questions) depended on the function of the prefrontal cortex. Patients with lesions in that region had profound impairment in their ability to express original thoughts and ideas (Shamay-Tsoory, Adler, Aharon-Peretz, Perry, & Mayseless, 2011). Neural activity in the prefrontal cortex also decreases when motivation stems more from extrinsic rewards (Murayama, Matsumoto, Izuma, & Matsumoto, 2010).
Studies show that people with damage to the prefrontal cortex ask significantly fewer questions and use questions less often to show interest in the topics at hand (Gupta, 2012). It would seem to follow that when a student poses his or her own questions, the prefrontal cortex is activated, enhancing both higher order thinking and the integration of ideas.

4. The classroom dynamic changes.

Whoever asks the questions holds the power. Teacher-initiated questions implicitly let students know the boundaries of what can be examined, setting up a top-down power dynamic. French philosopher Michel Foucault (1982) was acutely aware of this problem in formal education; he noted that when those in power set up the discourse, they limit the bounds of knowledge. Indeed, when Palmer Wolf (1987) recorded episodes of questioning in schools, she discovered that teachers tended to monopolize the right to question, ceding power only to select few students.
When students ask more questions, they become active learners who demonstrate an ownership of classroom inquiry.

5. Questioning helps students manipulate ideas.

Remembering information isn't the same as constructing knowledge. Facts and tidbits that are useful on tests are rarely useful outside the classroom. The number of words a student has memorized in a foreign language often corresponds little to that student's ability to understand or speak the language fluently. And many students who do well in a course proceed to forget what they've "learned."
Schneps (1989) asked students graduating from Harvard University, "Why does the earth have seasons?" and discovered that nearly everyone answered incorrectly. Most of these college graduates had probably learned in elementary school that the tilt of the earth's axis causes seasons. But they had done no cognitive manipulation—no thinking about this information or acting upon it—to make it stick.
Questioning, however, is by nature active. When we're forced to articulate questions about a topic, we have to do something with the information at hand: apply it and think about it. This helps us truly learn and remember.

6. Students' insights are formed and revealed.

Students' questions aren't just portholes into the thoughts they already have; they are the seeds of thought itself. For a middle school student to ask about a passage she has read, for example, she must synthesize the content; find the line between what is clear and what is unclear to her (which demands metacognition); tap into her intrinsic curiosity; and simultaneously form and articulate thoughts. Her questions about the passage both enable and reflect her emerging understanding.
There is a tradition in composition education in which students "write to learn," or discover as they go. There should also be a tradition of "asking to learn" in which students articulate and develop their thinking as they ask questions. Indeed, when students are instructed to brainstorm using only questions, as opposed to fully formed thoughts, imagination opens up like a floodgate. Ideas become creative, subversive, and playful (Berger, 2014).
I would have little idea where my students are intellectually if I merely asked them my questions about topics we're examining. Their own questions reveal to me not just what they understood from the particular text or experience, but also many facets of their developing learning process: things they want to find out about, their partially developed ideas, their attempts to find out what works, and—ultimately—their personal discourse with themselves. They expose their biases—and mine—and help me see what's being taken for granted and what might be possible.
A quick check into the questions my 4- and 6-year old children ask ("Do viruses sleep in the nighttime?" "Can Grandma be in two places at once?") makes it clear how divergent their worldviews are from my own. It's almost impossible for us as teachers to remember our frame of mind when we experienced our first insights as students. And those with more experience or expertise in any topic have a difficult time putting themselves in novices' shoes (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). That's why we must listen to what our students are thinking and wondering.
Questioning also supports metacognition. Students' questions make their learning and thinking explicit to themselves—and understanding and owning the process of learning through metacognition propels the learning itself (Ostroff, 2012).
Questioning belongs at the heart of pedagogical and curriculum design. Although it requires patience and faith to let the students set the stage, we can teach students to question effectively—and nothing reveals their thinking or transforms their thought processes more. If we want to promote inquiry and scaffold problem solving in the classroom, let's transfer as much questioning as possible to students.

Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Chouinard, M. M., Harris, P. L., & Maratsos, M. P. (2007). Children's questions: A mechanism for cognitive development. Boston: Blackwell.

Cifone, M.V. (2013). Questioning and learning: How do we recognize children's questions? Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue, 15(1&2), 41–55.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 1–27.

Dyer, J., Gregerson, H., & Christiansen, C. M. (2011). The innovator's DNA: Mastering the five skills of disruptive innovators. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Engel, S. (2011). Children's need to know: Curiosity in schools. Harvard Educational Review, 81(4), 625–645.

Fleming S. (2010). Relating introspective accuracy to individual differences in brain structure. Science, 329(5998), 1541–1543.

Foucault, M. (1982). The subject and power. Afterword to H. L. Dreyfus & P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond structuralism and hermeneutics. Brighton, UK: Harvester.

Gupta, R. (2012). The effects of ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage on interpersonal coordination in social interaction. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa). Retrieved from http://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/2883

Lepper, M. R., & Greene, D. (1975). Turning play into work: Effects of adult surveillance and extrinsic rewards on children's intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(3), 479–486.

Murayama, K., Matsumoto, M., Izuma, K., & Matsumoto, K. (2010). Neural basis of the undermining effect of monetary reward on intrinsic motivation. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(49), 20,911–20,916. doi:10.1073/pnas.1013305107

Ostroff, W. L. (2012). Understanding how young children learn: Bringing the science of child development to the classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Palmer Wolf, D. (1987). The art of questioning. Academic Connections, Winter, 1–7.

Piaget, J. (1973). Main trends in psychology. London: Allen and Unwin.

Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., Adler, N., Aharon-Peretz, J., Perry, D., & Mayseless, N. (2011). The origins of originality: The neural bases of creative thinking and originality. Neuropsychologia, 49(2), 178–185. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.11.020

Schneps, M. H. (1989). A private universe: Misconceptions that block learning [Video]. Santa Monica, CA: Pyramid Film and Video.

End Notes

1 The researchers interviewed people who invented revolutionary products, founded companies built on innovative business approaches, or ignited innovation in existing companies.

Wendy L. Ostroff, PhD, is a developmental and cognitive psychologist and a professor at the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University, a seminar-based program that prepares prospective teachers and emphasizes critical reading, writing, and thinking.

Dr. Ostroff has been designing and teaching interdisciplinary courses on child development, learning, and education for the past 15 years, and she offers workshops on applying child development research for scientists and practitioners. 

She is passionate about innovative and emergent pedagogies and state of the art teacher education.

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