The Power of a Good Question

“Mommy, why doesn’t the UPS truck come anymore?  Do they still deliver packages?”

What do you mean?

“It was the Amazon Prime truck that delivered the last 2 times.”

Oh I see.  Why do you think Amazon would send an Amazon Prime truck to deliver their packages instead of UPS?

“So they can get more money?”

Can you explain that?  

Good educators seek to know their students. In order to know their students they have to ask good questions.  Good students seek to know themselves and their place in the world around them.  In order to do that, they need to ask good questions.

In a nutshell, a thriving education involves lots of good questions being asked by both teachers and students.  (And if you’re dealing with institutionalized education, by the board, superintendent, the parents, the community, etc.)

Maybe this one is a familiar scenario:

How was your day in school? Good.

What was your favorite part of your day?  Lunch.

What did you learn?  I don’t know (or even better), Nothing.

I’ve had many conversations like these with my children and usually refuse to accept their answer telling them, “Nope.  That’s a lazy answer.”  But are they really to blame if I’m asking lazy questions?

How do we, as our children’s primary educators, become good question askers?

For our answer, we turn to a small segment of educators who refer to themselves as “interpreters”.  You might find them in Art Museums or at a National Park or Zoo.  Their primary role is to take the subject matter, whether it be a sculpture or a concept in nature like hawk migration patterns or the life cycle of a goldenrod gall fly, and make it fascinating for their audience (quite a feat).  They “interpret” the over-your-head stuff into meaningful ideas.

Interpreters deal with non-captive audiences that range from pre-schoolers to senior adults.  The term “non-captive” simply refers to an audience that is present to learn for their own entertainment and enjoyment as opposed to one that has to be attentive due to a test grade or other assessment that is on the line (did anyone else feel like a captive in their high school chemistry class?).  The non-captive audience can be a tough crowd, though.  If the interpreter bombs, the audience has the freedom to ignore her or simply walk away.

Sounds a lot like my children.  Always wanting to be entertained.  Do I need to put on a performance every time I’m trying to teach them something?  No.  But my goal is that they love to learn.

The easiest way for interpreters to make sure their audience is engaged is to ask thought-provoking questions.

Recently, in an effort to find some lessons on how to better teach my children art in an engaging way through the exhibits at our local Art Museum, I stumbled on a gem.  There is a course offered through Coursera called Art & Inquiry: Museum Teaching Strategies for your Classroom given by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

It is fabulous.  Not just because of the wealth of resources and bibliography that deals with teaching about art and objects, or that it’s a free course, but the fact that I was able to immediately put to use so many of the concepts taught with my own children.

One of my favorite articles referenced in the course was written by John Shuh of the Nova Scotia Museum.   He records a typical conversation during a teacher workshop that he often presents related to objects and inquiry.  Using nothing but questions, a few well-placed comments, and a styrofoam cup, what ensues is a deep and frankly a bit hilarious discussion regarding humanity and where our products have come from throughout history.

I encourage you to try it with your children and watch sparks fly in their little minds. This technique is perfect for families because it’s not age-specific and there is no prior knowledge or baseline reading level needed.

Find an ordinary object laying around the house- a stapler,  soda can,  calendar, scissors.  Those are all things that I can spot within a foot of where I’m sitting now.  Come up with as many questions as you can about the object and see where the conversation leads.  Basically anything you can see can turn into multiple teaching opportunities for the day.

Want to take this idea even further with your children?  Bring your kids and curiosity to a museum or gallery- local or virtual.   The BBC has a podcast called A History of the World in 100 Objects (from the British Museum).  Choose a historical object and as a family see how many questions and hypotheses can be made about that object.

Recently, I listened to the commentary on object #99, the credit card, and I found myself forming my own questions as I listened.   When and why did we start using money?  Will money eventually become obsolete? Will there be a way in the future to make a transaction through facial recognition?  I guarantee that asking questions will be a lot more engaging for everyone than simply reading about the objects or art on the placard beside the exhibit.

Take advantage of your child’s curiosity by having him log his own questions throughout the day in a journal set aside specifically for that purpose.  Allow him to take the most compelling questions to drive him into some research which might even lead to a project of some sort.

The weather has just started turning cooler here which means we finally get a respite from the mosquitos!  It led to this conversation started by one of my daughters:

“Where do mosquitos go in the winter?”

Good question.  Where do you think they go?

“I think they lay their eggs somewhere and then die and when it gets warm the babies hatch.”

Wow.  That sounds like it makes sense.  Let’s find out more.  

We watched some YouTube videos, checked out some library books and did some quick research online.  (If children are doing research online, make sure parental controls are set and children are using a kid-friendly search engine!)  We discussed deeper questions like, If you discovered a way to wipe out all the mosquitos, would you do it?  What effects would this have on the rest of the ecosystem?  In the end, the bulk of the questions were not related to mosquitos at all but about what “mating” meant and how animals do it.  LOL.  Get ready.  You never know where the questions will lead!

Another very practical way to help children make meaningful connections with content is by asking good questions about what they are reading.  Once again, we can easily get caught in the trap of asking closed-ended questions like, “Did you like that book?” Or super open-ended questions like “What was the book about?” And then for the next hour you are listening to a re-telling of the novel they just finished.  This is good, just not the depth of connection I am hoping they experience while they read.

Sarah MacKenzie of the Read Aloud Revival Podcast published a book called The Read-Aloud Family and my favorite chapter is one where she gives us as parents so many great questions to ask while your child is reading a book. Some of the questions include:

“What does the character want, and why can’t he or she have it?”

“Should he or she have done that?”

“Which character most reminds you of yourself?”

(-Sarah MacKenzie, The Read-Aloud Family)

The greatest thing is that these questions can be used for discussing any book.  I used to think when my oldest was just learning to read that I would read everything she read so that we could have these amazing conversations about what we were reading.  I love to read.  But I cannot keep up with that child so these are great tools to make sure that my children are comprehending and thinking deeply about that they read.

Most importantly, let’s regularly ask questions like these to discover the heart and passions of our children:

  1. If you could be an expert in 1 thing, what would it be?
  2. Fill in the blank- I feel happiest when I am…
  3. What job would you love to have so much that you would do for free?
  4. If you could be an apprentice under anyone in the world, who would it be?
  5. What do other people say you are really good at?
  6. If you could watch YouTube videos all day about how to learn a particular skill, what would you search for?
  7. If you could sign up today for any college course, which one would you enroll in?

Be your child’s “interpreter”.  Ask open-ended, meaningful questions and watch his relationships deepen and his world expand.  

3 Wonderful Sites FULL of inquiry inspiration:

BIE (Buck Institute for Education)


Teach thought


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