Questions in Class

Any parent will tell you that one of the most annoying habits young children have is their penchant for the "Why Game." In this game, the child observes something and demands that the parent explain it. "Why is the sky blue?" is the classic example. But more bizarre questions often pop up, such as "Why doesn't the week start with the weekend?" or, "How does my brain know what my name is?"

These questions are irritating not only because they are time-consuming, but also because they often show us the limits of what we ourselves know. We don't like being reduced to the answer "Just because." Nonetheless, we encourage our children to ask such questions because we realize that they help to develop intelligence and curiosity.

How much time do you remember taking in school to ponder such questions? If you are like most people, your answer will be "Not much." Why? Student-teacher ratios of thirty-to-one make it impossible to consider everybody's questions, but they don't make it impossible to consider anybody's. Why don't teachers take more time to sit and wonder with their students about the questions the students have about their world? If adults in their role as parents consider the Why Game worthy of time because it helps their own children to develop, why don't adults adopt the same approach in their role as teachers?

The answer is not that teachers consider students' questions to be unimportant. It is that teachers consider such questions to be less important than all the other stuff curriculum development boards have crowded into the classroom agenda, such as the names of all 50 states, or the structure of the periodic table, or the Pythagorean theorem.

A teacher of third-grade geography, fifth-grade math, or seventh-grade social studies just does not have time to sit and wonder with the class why weekends don't start the week. Teachers have a long, predetermined path from which they cannot stray if they are to reach the required destination. Further, such open-ended questioning admits of the possibility that the teacher might not know the answer. Not knowing the answer is both possible and perfectly acceptable from an educational perspective, but it is not at all acceptable in a world where the teacher is the ultimate authority.

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