How to Encourage an Inquiring Mind: Learning effective questioning techniques

STEM Activities with Blocks - An Everyday Story

STEM Activities with Blocks - An Everyday Story

Questioning, wondering, exploring, engaging; trying to make sense of the world. This is science. Real hands-on learning; learning through trial and error, hypothesising, reflecting, documenting…seeking answers.

When I was first training to be a teacher we learnt about higher order and lower order questioning. Higher order questioning left room for the child to answer thoughtfully; reflecting on their thoughts and experiences.

In contrast, lower order questioning simply required a yes/no answer or were typically ‘what’ questions intended to elicit a factual response without requiring the child to think too deeply about a concept or experience.

So for example, when a child is painting you could ask:

“What colour is this?” (lower order questioning)

or

“I noticed your paper is becoming thin here, why do you think that happened?” (higher order questioning)

Developing effective questioning techniques can really help your child engage in rich child-led inquiry which is based on reflection. The questions we ask our children can help to drive them deeper into their interests or can turn their interests into a superficial inquiry of facts and figures. It’s all in how we ask them.

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I’ve been itching to get started working through Building Structures with Young Children. This book explores scientific concepts through hands-on discovery. What I really like about this book though is the emphasis on higher-order questioning to encourage children to think deeply about their work.

The book suggests you start with open explorations of building materials; strewing them throughout play areas and incorporating blocks into other types of play.

This initial open exploration phase is really important. This time gives us insights into our children’s thought processes. Just like with other inquiry work (or project work), if we allow for open exploration and allow it to guide our planning process, we are able to tailor our planning to meet our child’s interests.

Last week, after 3-4 weeks of intentional strewing, observing and documenting,  I set out a building challenge: Can you build a tower? How high can you go?

Science Activities with Blocks - An Everyday Story

Block STEM Activities - An Everyday Story

It took no time at all for Jack to try and read the question… How high can you go? He accepted the challenge immediately.

Over the next week I took photos and sketched their towers. Sarah’s towers toppled after two or three blocks. Rather than offering suggestions, or lower-order questioning, I try to engage Sarah with some higher-order questions which encourage her to think more deeply:

“Tell me about the tower you built?” “Why do you think it fell down?”

“Which blocks did you choose to build with?” “Why did you choose those blocks?” 

We also look at photos of previous structures, using more higher-order questioning:

“Why do you think this tower didn’t fall down?” “What made this tower strong?”

“Tell me about this tower?” “What happened when you added that block?”

In this way, Sarah is talking through her building decisions, making predictions and trialling new ways of building.

STEM Activities with Blocks - An Everyday Story

Jack took a different, more calculated approach.

How high can you go? The tallest tower he could build?

He thought about it for while. He stared into the block basket; thinking, then chose two types of blocks.

He first tried building with the thick Jenga blocks standing up…but this fell before Jack was done building. He thought again and changed his design; this time with the Jenga blocks laying flat.

“I noticed that in your first tower you had the Jenga blocks standing up. But in this tower you did something differently.”

“The blocks were too tall standing up. They couldn’t balance so they fell down. Now they are flat. They can’t fall now. I can build up and up.” ~ Jack

Jack and Sarah are learning about balance and stability. They are hypothesising, experimenting, analysing, drawing conclusions and applying that knowledge; they are undergoing the entire scientific process through exploration and reflection.

By using higher-order questioning, Jack and Sarah are encouraged to articulate their thoughts, to problem-solve and to work through different solutions.

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If you want to incorporate this kind of scientific exploration, there are a few things which I have found really useful:

Asking higher-order questions

Use words like:

  • Why do you think?
  • I noticed that…
  • How did you…?
  • What do you think will happen if you…?
  • Tell me about…

Voice recording app

I find I can’t be present and focussed if I am jotting down observations. So I use a voice recording app on my phone to record our conversations.

These recordings also help me to reflect on my questioning. It can be hard to not ask ‘yes/no’ or leading questions. So these recordings have been invaluable.

I can see which questions added to a rich discussion, which ones were leading – trying to pry out an answer that I wanted, and which ones simply shut the conversation down.

Camera

Photograph everything.

I try to snap quickly so as not to interrupt the kids’ work. The photos are not only helpful reflection tools for me (I can document their process), they are more so, incredible learning tools for the kids.

I show the kids photos of their previous structures for them to discuss and reflect upon. They then use these reflections to inform their building.

Clipboard & fine-tipped markers

I have these near the blocks to encourage Jack and Sarah to represent their towers graphically. This helps them to look closely; observing details and again, reflect upon their building process.

We use these drawings along with the photos in future inquiries.

Time

This kind of scientific inquiry isn’t something which is covered in a week or a month and then moved on to something else. Open exploration, reflection, application; it’s a deep, cyclical process of learning.

The initial open exploration phase could take weeks, the building stage could take months – each time building on each other through a continual process of observation and experimentation.

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Next week I will add some more materials to the building inquiry; maybe some measuring materials like a tape measure and some geometry sets for drawing lines.

We’ll also use the photos from this week to explore design ideas and talk more about balance and stability. I’m looking forward to seeing how their designs evolve.

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12 Comment

  1. mylittlepoppiescaitie says:

    The book (and series) sounds amazing. Thank you so much for sharing it with us! I may have to invest 🙂

  2. If you’re ever in Sydney, you should check out my block play centre (Kids Build Together). It’s a space where parents and kids can come and play with blocks together. I agree that the scientific understanding (and mathematical, and language!) which comes from block-building is incredible – but often not acknowledged, if you’re not observing carefully. It’s so much easier to try to ‘fix’ a child’s building which might be toppling (here’s a bigger block for the base) rather than to let it fall and then think about why that might have happened. Plenty of time and the habit of observation I think are so important.

  3. What a brilliantly simple way of doing things. It just takes a bit of mindfulness to set up the materials and challenge, and then some presence to talk through the thought processes, and with great results. Thanks.

  4. I’ve just bought the whole series of books to read while we’re on holidays. C’s just starting to engage in the thinking around this play, so it’s really exciting.

  5. This is SO inspiring Kate!!! Just love it – I’m going to set up the blocks for when the kids get home from school today. I often struggle to form those ‘higher-order’ questions so appreciate the examples! Love the way you set it all out and it is so exciting to see how it challenges kids to challenge THEMSELVES to experiment 🙂

  6. Thanks for this post. It made me really think more about how I approach discussions and interactions about my children’s work. Such great ideas, and of course, I ordered that book.

    On another note, do you still send out email notifications of new blog posts? I stopped receiving emails. I don’t know if I need to resubscribe, or if you’re just not doing that anymore. Thanks!

  7. Yet another inspiring post, Kate! I believe inquiry and discussion is one of the most valuable skills a homeschooling parent (or teacher) can utilize. In my teaching experience, it was a culture of constant classroom discussion that cultivated deep thinkers. If you haven’t read it yet, the book “A Beautiful Question” may be of interest to you.
    Thank you for all you share with us!

  8. This was so needed! Thank you for posting this. My struggle this year has been trying to find ways to help activate my child into thinking more deeply about what she’s working on. Without saying, “work on this longer,” I just can’t seem to encourage her to develop her ideas. I don’t think my child has stuck with something as long as a month (well, to some extent, but the learning stamina wanes). How do you help your children stick with something that long (e.g. building towers with the blocks)? I’d love your advice. Thank you! Your blog helps me get back on track when I feel like I’m in a homeschool rut.

  9. Oh it is so important for kids (people) to know how to THINK! Our kids are at a Reggio school, which for us is really an extension of what we do at home. We are meant to be moving interstate but I’m struggling to find another Reggio inspired school. Family and friends ask why we don’t just send them to the local schools but we looked at a heap and they seemed to just be making mass produced little people. We have worked so hard to have little people with inquiring little minds and we don’t want to undo all that lovely play based learning!

  10. belinda francis says:

    If you ask a question like
    “what do you think….?” And you get back a high fantasy answer with no basis to the realities of earth ; 3.5 yrs

    Would you then
    Challenge them to test it if it’s even vaguely possible
    Assume a lack of knowledge and try and foster the required skills another way
    Allow them their flight of fantasy reasonably sure that they didn’t really think about it
    Try a different higher order question

    I’m really struggling with trying to encourage my 3 yr old to experiment in a mindful way. He tends to be a try it once and if it’s not right chuck it all on the floor and give up or insist he needs help.. which translates to him expecting someone to find a way to just make his vision work. I hate the cycle and right now don’t have a lot of clues to how to change it.

    Kind Regards
    Belinda

    1. Jack used to be – and still is to some extent – a chuck it all on the floor and give-up little boy too. It can be frustrating, especially when you are trying to, like you said, encourage them to think in a mindful way and look for alternative solutions. I think a lot of the time I try to honour their fantasy answer; asking them to explain it a little more to me. Then if I hear some assumption in what they are saying, I’ll ask them about it. So for example, the other day we were out bushwalking and Jack found some limestone that was flaking off. He mentioned that the rock was old and dying. In this there is the assumption that rocks are alive so I asked him, “Can rocks die?” he said he thought they could, so I asked him again, “Are rocks alive?” It really challenged him to think about what he was saying as opposed to me simply saying, ‘rocks can’t die. They’re not alive.’

      If he is building something though – a model or some lego or blocks or something – he’ll often have ideas that just won’t work but I think it is important for them to work out for themselves that they won’t work. The hard part is talking them through it when they become frustrated because their idea didn’t work again. I’ll often give suggestions or I’ll point out something that I think he might have missed. So for example, he was trying to build a bike the other day out of Zoob pieces but the middle kept collapsing and it wouldn’t stand up. He was becoming frustrated and I could see that if I didn’t step in he would end up ruining all his hard work by throwing it across the room. So I said, “the middle keeps collapsing, I wonder how we could fix that?” He had some ideas but if he didn’t, I probably would have said, “Why don’t we try…?” and then let him do it. But he needs to do it. Not me. If he wanted me to do it, I would suggest that we put it away for now and write down our plans and then we can work on it again when we are both ready.

      I hope this helps a little.

  11. Belinda Francis says:

    Thanks Kate,

    I appreciate you taking the time to respond. Your ideas really have helped me form my thoughts around this a bit better.

    I have a lot of general maths & science background so it has been easy to fall into the ask a question “mum gives a factual answer” cycle. I’ve been aware for about 6 months that by doing so I am robbing him of learning the process of enquiry and answer exploration but he has previously flitted so much from topic to topic it has been hard to encourage “research” without an entire children’s library on hand. ATM we have three pretty solid area’s of interest that have allowed me to really start to introduce the children’s non fiction area of the library.

    Best Wishes
    Belinda Francis

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