Why do kids ask so many questions—and why do they stop?

Louis C.K.on questioningThoughts from Richard Saul Wurman and the comedian Louis C.K.

A while back I was discussing the subject of “questioning” with Richard Saul Wurman, the original creator of the TED Conference and a man who’s pretty much obsessed with questions.

He immediately focused on the educational system. “In school, we’re rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question,” Wurman pointed out. Which may explain why kids—who start off asking endless “why” and “what if” questions—gradually ask fewer and fewer of them as they progress through grade school.

This also came up in the Newsweek story “The Creativity Crisis” (no longer linkable, alas) about signs of declining creativity among our school children. Interesting fact cited in the article: Preschool kids ask their parents an average of 100 questions a day. By middle school, they’ve basically stopped asking questions. Around this time, the article points out, student motivation and engagement plummets. Which raises an interesting question: Have the kids stopped asking questions because they’ve lost interest? Or have they lost interest because the rote answers-driven school system doesn’t allow them to ask enough questions? (I touch on some of these questions in my book trailer video “What Kills Questioning?”; see it over there in the right sidebar.)

There’s a lot to explore here. I know that there are many teachers, and progressive schools, and programs within schools, that are much more geared to allowing kids to question and experiment. I take a closer look at some of those efforts in my book, and ask whether they should be embraced more widely. Meanwhile, if you have thoughts, ideas, anecdotes (and of course, questions) about the role of questioning within our educational system, please share.

Oh, and just for fun, here’s a wonderful video riff by comedian Louis C.K. all about kids and how many questions they ask, to the irritation of their parents. (If you can’t abide 4-letter words, you may want to skip it.)
Video: “Why?” by Louis C.K.

Read my other posts about kids, education, and questioning.

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9 Beautiful Comments

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  1. Mostly Curious says:

    There was a true story about a truck that drove under a low bridge overpass and got stuck. The city core of engineers went out to determine how to support the the bridge while removing the concrete slabs to allow the truck to be removed. Then a child asked: Why don’t you just let the air out of the tires…
    Children have the basic level of thinking to know the questions to ask. I think it is the intervention of fear such as asking a dumb question, or shame when adults telling them -not now, that quashes their need to ask questions. Most children and adults still ask those questions albeit, internally.

      

    • Warren Berger
      Twitter: GlimmerGuy
      says:

      that is such a great story. and so true about kids — the question is, how do we maintain that childlike curiosity & willingness to question?

        

      • JustinHamilton says:

        “how do we maintain that childlike curiosity & willingness to question?”

        I think it starts by adults (specifically parents) challenging them with questions. Quite often, when parents quit expecting higher results from their children, then the child stops developing in those ways. To continue that ever upward slope of success, it requires challenge and work. You can’t get to the top of a hill on a bike by coasting!
        I believe that a large percentage of us grow into what is expected of us. My father always challenged me with puzzles, riddles, and sometimes endless questions. But it was a fun interaction that I had with my father.

          

  2. David E C Huggins says:

    What single action has the greatest impact, either positive or negative, on productivity?
    This is not a trick question; it’s a great question, because it invited you to think!

    Consider for a moment, you had the art of using questions really ‘taped’ when you were a toddler. Your questions taught you everything you needed and wanted to know in a strange and often threatening world.

    You could get peoples attention, have them focus on you, respond to your needs and perhaps satisfy your desires. This made you more competent and confident; in the process, many of them felt fulfilled in their role as parent or older sibling.

    Then it all changed! They decided to limit your use of this powerful communication tool because it wasn’t always comfortable. Your teachers discovered that it was frequently more convenient to have you accept their ideas without questions since this took less time and effort on their part.

    In a short while, you lost the desire and the skill to use questions to manage your world.

    Take heart – it’s easily regained. Here are three pointers that will have you moving in the right direction once more, and you’ll be amazed at how this will change your fortunes and your relationships.

    Firstly, a great question is any question that invites a mind to open and to share – this is engagement!

    Secondly, effective questions have two components – they have a clear purpose and they build on relationships. In short, the outcome has been properly considered and the residue / legacy is positive.

    Thirdly, questions that work are both closed (direct) and open (expansive). A direct question is a good way to attract attention and to initiate or close a conversation. Open or expansive questions are an excellent way to encourage value added content in between. Here’s a typical process for a question-based conversation:

    Can we talk about this? (closed – makes for a safe conversation)
    How does this situation look to you? (opening – invites contribution in a non-threatening way)
    How could this be handled in the most effective way? (open – asks for original input)
    What do you see as the consequences? (opening – defines action and transfers responsibility)
    When will we see results? (closed – confirms intended action)
    Was that painful? Could you do this? In what ways would it benefit you? Could I assist you?

    When will you start?

      

  3. Julius Uhrik
    Twitter: julius_uhrik
    says:

    Questions are actually an interesting phenomenon.

    A question you ask gives you more than attention. It gives you control.
    Try a little experiment. In the next conversation you have start with a question and keep asking. Now note who is the one choosing the direction of the dialogue? You are!

    The school system (most of them all over the world) has one goal. To bring everybody on the same (reasonable) level.

    Build a kind of common sense, communication platform so that we can understand one another.

    Whether we like it or not, letting the kids ask questions at school does not fit into this picture. You can’t have 30 kids asking the teacher questions. Well, actually you can and then you end up with a small anarchy, which is controlled by the kids. Not the teacher.
    You see results of this everywhere. It works just as bad as the standard education without questions.

    So how do we solve this?
    (Did you notice I am asking questions even when I write? I regain your attention with every question I ask.)

    Personally, I believe that the school system will fall short on this issue. You have a far greater chance to support children in asking questions. How? By one-on-one coaching at home.

    Support children in asking questions.

    When playing with kids, let them ask the questions and let them be in control.

    When a question is asked, answer it! Keep in mind, you should be rewarding every question and the answer you give is the crucial turning point. Your answer can bring up more questions or dismiss the rest of the conversation (and questions).

    Question everything, don’t take things for granted and ask questions in front of your children.

    Leading children by example can definitely contribute to the process.

    There is also another possible reason why children are stopping to ask questions. I have published it on my website. Let me finish with a question: Anybody interested? ;-)

    Julius Uhrik – the owner of HowToPlayWithKids.com
    Julius Uhrik recently posted..Sick and tired of questions?

      

  4. Ian says:

    My kid asks the same question over and over. Is that normal?

      

  5. chieflo says:

    Please see this six-minute animation I created, wrote and narrated that was featured in the Wall St. Journal and which references the same newsweek article.
     
    http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/11/17/hail-maria-montessori-educational-superwoman/
     
    This animation was based on a short article of the same name that I wrote: http://un-schooled.net/?p=488
     
    There are dozens of public Montessori schools achieving superb results in low-income communities across the country. The Milwaukee NAACP recently noted in a report: “Prospects for educational achievement are brightest for Milwaukee Public School students who are enrolled in Montessori Schools.” In East Dallas, in a low-income neighborhood where less than half of entering freshmen graduate from high school, 95% of East Dallas Community Schools (just by attending a public Montessori program for K-3) graduates earn their diplomas, with 89% of those graduates attending college. Anne Williams-Isom, the COO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is a Montessori mom, read my article and wrote her own eloquent testament to Montessori and stated: “Somehow Maria Montessori understood differential learning long before it became a fancy term. Daniel is right. Maria Montessori was indeed a Superwoman. I agree that the Montessori Method could have many positive implications for the education of children who grow up in economically disadvantaged families and underserved communities. This is true for all of the reasons listed above. Additionally, as Daniel has described, there are also countless benefits to having a calm and peaceful environment – especially for children who live in stressful situations. For those children who may be growing up in chaotic circumstances, calm and order can actually have a profound and healing effect. Being able to freely explore without someone telling you to sit down or sit still, and being allowed to be curious while having your good choices supported are all things that all kids need but that children that come from challenging backgrounds need even more.” Montessori is not the answer for every child, but it is a great system for MILLIONS of children and one that should be at the center, not margins, of the revolution in education.

      

  6. What a wonderful article and comments! I was looking for such publications on the internet from 1996, as I had been interested in the phenomenon of asking questions for many years.

    In 2011 I had a paper on educational congress in India exactly on the subject of schools going against of natural human desire to educate themselves by asking questions (if you are interested, look here: ).

    earlier, in 2006 I published a book “Who Asked the First Question?” where I tried to argue that asking questions is the most important evolutionary development of human cognitive abilities.

    This book is here:

    I am very happy to see that these topics had been discussed on this site, and that there are so many people interested in this subject (sadly, mostly neglected in scholarly publications).

    I did an informal research about the tests conducted in secondary schools in Melbourne, and found that out of 50 college teachers only one used a test where students were asked to formulate questions, instead of answering questions…

    So thank you to everyone for the article and for the comments, and yes, please encourage your children to ask questions. Asking questions is much more important than learning how to give the correct answers to questions…
    Joseph Jordania recently posted..Portal:San Francisco Bay Area/Quotes/Archive

      

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