It’s summertime, which means, among other things, family vacations, long car trips, and… questions. With parents often spending more time around their kids this time of year, they may find themselves fielding even more questions than usual and wondering: Why does my kid question so much? (which also happens to be one of the top searches that leads people to this site).
In this short excerpt from AMBQ, I talk to leading child psychologists and neurologists about what’s going on kids’ developing brains and why that leads them to ask hundreds of questions a day—up until about age five.
EXCERPT (pages 40–43 of A More Beautiful Question)
Curious kids: Where do all their questions come from?
According to Paul Harris, a Harvard child psychologist and author, research shows that a child asks about 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five. During that span, a shift occurs in the kind of questions being asked: from simple factual ones (name of object) to the first requests for explanations by 30 months. By age 4, the lion’s share of the questions are seeking explanations, not just facts.
As this is happening, rapid brain growth is occurring. At the University of Washington, advanced brain-scan technology is able to show connections forming in young brains (some of the lab’s work is featured in Tiffany Shlain’s fascinating film Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks). What the lab’s scans reveal is an explosion of connections (synapses) between neurons in young children’s brains—amounting to about a quadrillion connections, or more than three times the number found in an adult brain. Kids’ brains are constantly connecting stimuli or thoughts. And as they’re making these mental connections, they’re seeking more information and clarification by way of questioning.
Not that it’s easy for a child to ask a question. Harris has described it as “a series of complex mental maneuvers.” It starts with knowing that you don’t know. The asking of a question also indicates that the child understands there are various possible answers: “When they ask what’s for dinner, they can imagine that it might be soup or pasta,” Harris writes in his book, Testing What You’re Told. “Without the ability to conceive of more than one possible way that things might stand in the world, why ask a question?” Lastly, it means they’ve figured out an efficient way to fill this gap in their knowledge—by asking someone who might know.
As children venture out into the world, they constantly encounter things they cannot classify or label. As the children’s neurologist Stewart Mostofsky puts it, they have not yet developed “mental models” to categorize things, so part of what they’re doing when questioning is asking adults to help them with this huge job of categorizing what they experience around them, labeling it, putting it in the proper file drawers of the brain.
Somewhere between ages 4 and 5, children are ideally suited for questioning: They have gained the language skills to ask, their brains are still in an expansive, highly-connective mode, and they’re seeing things without labels or assumptions. They’re perfect explorers. The physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks about young children being scientists, because they turn over rocks and mash things together; Harvard’s Harris points out that they’re also like anthropologists—they don’t just conduct experiments, they ask the people around them questions.
There’s a tendency to think they don’t care about the answers—that, as the Louis C.K. suggests in his “Why” comedy routine, no matter what you answer, kids will just ask Why again. But they do, in fact, seem to care very much about the answers they get. A recent University of Michigan study found that when preschoolers ask ‘why’ they’re not just trying to annoy adults or simply prolong a conversation—“they’re trying to get to the bottom of things.” In the studies, when kids were given actual explanations, they either agreed and were satisfied, or they asked a follow-up question; whereas if they didn’t get a good answer, they were more likely to be dissatisfied and to repeat the original question.
The INSEAD professor and questioning expert Hal Gregersen says that if you watch closely what’s happening when kids ask adults questions, “the reason kids ask ‘why’ over and over again is often because we don’t understand their questions, or we’re just not listening. And by asking over and over, they’re saying to us, in effect, ‘You are not hearing me—you’re not understanding what I’m asking.’”
As children enter preschool, a curious change starts to happen around questioning. Preschoolers are entering into a stimulation-rich environment, surrounded by other presumably inquisitive kids, with ready access to an adult question-answerer known as the teacher—seemingly ideal conditions for questioning. Yet they immediately begin to ask fewer questions, according to Harris, who cites studies done in various cultures around the world, all showing the same result. He theorizes that there is a “comfort” factor at work here; at home with a parent, children are more willing to share their questions than they are at preschool.
But even so, preschoolers are still asking questions at a higher rate than older school kids. Most preschool environments are relatively unstructured and allow for more freeform play and exploration—which may be key to helping kids maintain their propensity to inquire and learn at this level. However, in grade school, questioning really starts to “drop off a cliff,” according to data from the 2009 U.S. Nations Report Card. And as kids stop questioning, they simultaneously become less engaged in school. When engagement level of students is measured, as in a recent Gallup study, we see the same falling-off-the-cliff phenomenon as students move from elementary school through high school.
Clearly, there are various factors that can influence kids’ question-asking and their curiosity levels through the growing-up years. For instance, at around age five, the brain starts trimming back some of those neural connections that were expanding so rapidly the first few years; this process, known as “synaptic pruning,” could translate to less questioning and less wondering about the surrounding world. And it’s also true that as we develop mental models of that world—with more categorization, more labels—there isn’t quite as much need to ask “what’s this” and “what’s that.”
But many educators and learning experts also contend that our current system of education does not encourage, teach, or in some cases even tolerate questioning. Harvard’s Tony Wagner says: “Somehow, we’ve defined the goal of schooling as enabling you to have more ‘right answers’ than the person next to you. And we penalize incorrect answers. And we do this at a pace—especially now, in this highly-focused test prep universe—where we don’t have time for extraneous questions.”
To be fair, many teachers feel helpless in the face of this. As one California high school teacher lamented, “I have so many state standards I have to teach concept-wise, it takes away time from what I find most valuable—which is to have [students] inquire about the world.”
Dominic Randolph, principal of the Riverdale School in New York, uses the corporate term “product-driven” to describe many of today’s schools. Under pressure to improve test scores, they’ve tried to instill business-like efficiency into a process designed to impart as much information as possible to students, within a given time frame—leaving little or no time for student inquiry.