Most school children do not ask questions.
Children believe their questions are not valuable. They fear their peers’ ridicule for asking a “stupid question”. Or they are discouraged by teachers from interrupting a class and derailing the delivery of a lesson. However, as educators, we want children to ask engaging questions which represent a quest of sorts – which inspire children to drive their learning in a bid to find out more.
How can an educator inspire questions? I do not mean the regular: “Do I write this in my notebook?” or “When do I have to submit this?” But questions which come when a child engages with something that sparks her curiosity. The ones that bubble right up, reflecting the wonder in a child’s mind. These are rare!
At Al Qamar Academy, we try several ways to get children to come up with questions. During lockdown, one attempt involved sharing the Weekly video from The Kid Should See This. This particular video, Vancouver Island Hummingbirds, showed a little girl holding a container as several hummingbirds come to feed. Many flap around her while one or two dart in to take a sip from the bowl. The child stays absolutely still and the birds show no fear of her.
We posted a Google Form alongside the video and asked kids from Grades 5-8 to jot down whatever questions struck them while watching the video. The video must have really fascinated the children and inspired them with wonder because we got a lot of questions from them.
One kind of question was driven by immediate observations “What’s the girl feeding the birds?”, “Why are only a few drinking, while the rest just stand or flap in the air?” or, “What’s in the bowl?”
Another variant went deeper – “How do hummingbirds stay suspended in the air?” The video challenged their mental models of birds flapping their wings and moving. These birds were flapping their wings – very rapidly – and not moving.
“How did the birds trust the girl?” was another such query – children have seen “domesticated” birds like hens being familiar with humans. But seeing a “wild” bird overcoming its fear of humans and coming close made them wonder. The converse of this question was the one wondering why the girl herself was not scared of getting hurt. Maybe the children were putting themselves in her shoes and thinking what they would have done in a similar situation. They got an insight that the girl had to be very patient in order to be so still.
A third category of questions extended the children’s thinking. “How many times does the hummingbird flap its wings?” “What makes them flap their wings so often?” “How do hummingbirds move?” “Why do they have such a long beak?” These questions went deeper into the mechanics of flight, feeding, and bird behavior.
As an educator, perhaps the most thought provoking questions were the non-questions. “Why did Aunty show this kind of a video?” “Where are the facts in this?” “Is this supposed to be a funny video?” Some of these posers helped me reflect on how children were reacting to the new pedagogical initiative – were they expecting a video which had a clear beginning, middle and resolution in the end? Were they expecting an edifying commentary which laid out the facts and figures? This video with an almost silent depiction of real life – what purpose did it serve? Some children hate ambiguity – they balk at open ended questions which don’t have clear right or wrong answers. They flee from being asked to ask questions – it challenges their sense of self as a student. But I was surprised that these bright, and highly original children seemed a bit discomfited by the video.
What was intriguing was the fact that most other children asked so many questions. We struggle in class to get them to ask a few. It becomes a chore for them and they simply pose a question to get the teacher off their back. So, what changed in this situation?
Could the medium – a visual real life video have made a difference? This was not textual learning. But something they could see, hear and think about.
Was it the little girl – roughly their own age, which made them relate to her and wonder?
Could it have been that they watched the video in the peace and quiet of their homes – so they had time and space to ponder over it. In school, they may be getting distracted – their friends are around, there’s games to be played, notes to be exchanged, gossip to be shared – all while watching a video.
Did parents play a role – were there some stimulating discussions that happened?
All these factors should be explored to understand what caused the breakthrough we had. Till then, we are going to keep sharing more thought provoking videos and hoping for a gold mine of questions from the kids. Till then, do check out the kids' questions on the Sawaliram website.