--Education 3: Questions are the Answer

Date: 3/18/2009

This is based on a lecture I heard by a noted Counselor in the Jerusalem area, Rabbi Ephraim David Becker, PhD. 

Learning develops from two sources:  One, is asking questions and two is from making mistakes.  Sometimes teachers and parents (from now one: "educators") discourage children and students  from asking questions and as a result they may cause damage to the child's development.   However, when one considers the tremendous value of letting the child or student (from now on: "children".  This can refer to adults, too) explore through his questions, the educator will begin to encourage the child to ask and cherish his questions every time he does.  We can chart the course of development in the following way.

1) Identity.  The first step is simply encouraging the child to ask questions.  The problem many educators have is that the child asks a question at an inappropriate time and the educator may get upset and tell him not to ask now because we are trying to study.  The educator's impatience may be further tested if the question has no relation to the material being studied.  For example, let's say you are studying and the child looks up a the light bulb and asks you "How do light bulbs work?"  Such a totally unrelated question may trigger a response such as "Why do you always ask such ridiculous questions when we are trying to learn about..." 

A more resourceful response--and this may come as a surprise to many educators--would be  "That is a fascinating question!  And you know something?  I do not know exactly how light bulbs work." Or, if you know the answer you can explain it briefly.  Why do I say that this may surprise many educators?  Because isn't it part of the child's education to learn the importance of when to ask a question and to stay focused on the material being studied?!  The answer is yes, it is important for the child to learn when to ask a question.  But, there is something even more important that the child has to learn first.

The idea here is that the first thing you want to do is give the child an identity of "I am a question asker" since, as we said, that is one of the foundations of learning. "When" to ask a question is the next stage described below.

To understand this better, consider the situation of an infant.  Infants cry, complain, or kvetch when they want something.  Indeed, that is all they are capable of doing to get what they need and it is therefore appropriate for them to do so.  An educator's goal should be to get the child beyond this infantile way of relating to the world and to begin to ask actual questions.  This has to be done patiently and carefully to fit the child's capabilities of making this transition.  Different children will graduate at different times in their development and at different speeds. I cannot think of a more  poignant illustration of this idea than the 4 sons of the Passover Hagadah where it is clear how one must relate to each child in his own unique way .

It is important to note that even as adults there are times and occasions when crying is  appropriate.  However, in the learning process, there are generally more productive ways of responding to challenges than crying or complaining, etc.

What is a question?  Of course, we all know the answer to that one.  However, the following analysis may shed some light on it and facilitate going from the infantile crying stage to the asking questions stage more easily.  In order for someone to ask a question they have to 1) realize that there is something they do not know.  A person  has to have some humility to realize that he does not know something.  2) The person must have a desire to know.  Obviously, the educator will want to excite the child about knowing more--and by all means not stifle that desire.  This may require a personal accounting on the part of the educator. 

These ideas also apply to the other  principle of developing the learning process: making mistakes.  If children do not attempt to participate in class or in the learning session because they are afraid of making a mistake, they are missing out on a fundamental part of their development.  Encourage them to participate even if it means they might make a mistake. Help them cultivate a positive attitude that it is okay to make a mistake because you learn from your mistakes.

2) Appropriateness. After the child has an identity of a "question asker" then you can work on when to ask questions.  The light bulb question is, indeed, a terrific question, and you can tell him that.  Just explain to him "That is a wonderful question.  Let's talk about it  later because now we are learning about a different topic...." 

3) Ownership. Many times people who ask questions expect the person they are asking to have an answer.  Some people may even become irritated if they don't receive an answer.  People like these do not "own" their questions.  For example, I have been challenged with questions such as "If there is a G-d in the world how come there is so much suffering?" To get the asker to "own" his question I might say to him something like:  "That is a great question, and there is a lot written on it.  Why don't you go and read up on it.  After that we can discuss it if you like."  The point here is that when a child asks me a question,  he owns the question.  Simply by virtue of his asking the question I do not somehow inherit an obligation to answer it.  You are doing him a great favor by letting him explore things first.

4) Gratitude. This is an attitude on the part of the child:  "I would be grateful if you would help me answer this question."  When the child has this attitude he knows that he "owns" the question but is reaching out to others in his environment to help him deal with it.  This state is particularly significant because it marks the beginning of an adult attitude towards both learning and life. 

Think about different people who annoy you in one way or another.  Many of them may be stuck in one of these stages of development.  You may be perceiving that they are making a demand on you which somehow you know is not right.  Unfortunately many people never make it to this stage of gratitude.   I remember when I was a child hearing a conversation between two of my relatives about a third person they both knew.  Evidently this fellow had an ungrateful attitude towards others.  The way they described him was:  "So what have you done for me lately?"  

5) Intimacy. Once the child has developed this attitude of gratitude, a completely different relationship begins to evolve.  Typically the feelings of stress that educators feel towards children go away.  There is a healthy mutuality and reciprocation in the relationship.  It is possible to communicate with them more freely.  They will be more open to  listening to constructive criticism and to making personal changes-- which is what true education is all about.

It is sad that many adults are stuck in some of these stages and never develop to their full potential.  Listen to how people approach you with their questions (assuming that they have at least reached the first stage of asking questions!).  You can often identify where they are stuck. For example:  Are they asking: "Excuse me, could you help me? How does one get to the dormitory building from here?"   Or are they asking:  "Where in the world is the dormitory in this place?!"  

By going through these stages  with your children  you can help them develop their potentials and assist them to be prepared to meet many of life's challenges.