Questioning and learning: how do we recognize children's questions?
How does questioning happen? How do questions work within the context of learning? What constitutes a question? To investigate the relationship between questions and learning, from the learner's perspective--in contrast to questions prompted by another person--I studied childrens' questioning process as they worked on a classroom activity.
I found that questions were more complicated than they seem since not all questions were presented in interrogatory form, nor even articulated with words. Identifying questions thus became the necessary first step in studying the questioning process.
In What Ways Is How We Think Related to How We Ask Questions?
Piaget's (1974/1980; 1975/1985) and Dewey's (1909, 1929) fundamental insights into the process of questioning provided a conceptual framework for identifying learners' questions, including the Piagetian theory of learning as the learners' construction of their knowledge.
In Experiments in Contradiction, Piaget (1974/1980) poses questions to children as he tries to find out how they discover and attempt to resolve contradictions. The questions he asks become the children's genuine questions, stimulating them, in turn, to investigate their own ideas and see their contradictions. Thus, Piaget suggests that questions are critical for discovering. Piaget also clarifies the importance of critical moments or transitional times in the development of a child's understanding. While there are questions which do not have any effect on the child, there are other "questions which put [the child] on the path," and then there is the moment when "one simple question suggesting the possibility of small differences immediately triggered off understanding, whereas at previous levels even a complete explanation by the questioner had no effect" (Piaget,1974/1980, p. 17).
Dorn (1987) clarifies this point. She noticed that children's questions can be used to characterize Piaget's transitional stages and suggested that, from the learner's point of view, questions are questions only when the learner recognizes them as such and transforms them into internal--or spontaneous--questions. When children are not ready to ask spontaneous questions, the discovering process cannot proceed. At that point, children do not perceive contradictions.
When "the correctness of the predictions is still not being questioned [by the child]," Piaget explains, "the child still doesn't entertain the notion that the negation can be attributed to his own reasoning" (Piaget,1974/1980, p. 90). Indeed, the child explains the negative result of his actions or his unfilled predictions as a consequence of physical aspects of either the object or the action he performed. Because the child does not question himself, Piaget says, he cannot go beyond his contradictions. And when the child does not "answer," Piaget stops questioning him. In what Piaget names "the regulating mechanism," the child moves from "functional disequilibriums" (functional in the sense that they are the starting point of progress) to regulations or equilibrations. Both the ways in which initial functional disequilibriums or contradictions occur and the sources of disequilibriums are related to the child's questioning, or lack thereof, which is a crucial link in the process.
Piaget (1975/1985) gives critical status to equilibrium/disequilibrium in the presence of cognitive conflicts and conveys the notion of transitional times to mark children's awareness of these conflicts and get to their genuine questions. Questioning can thus be explored as a compensatory process between disequilibriums and equilibriums; this notion helps expand our conception of the question, for it focuses on the process, not the form, allowing us to understand not only interrogative verbal sentences, but also actions and cognitive tasks as questions.
Examining the process of thinking and the nature of thought, Dewey (1909) explains learning as a process that involves research and personal inquiry and develops through doing, i.e., as a movement of action and reaction where engagement in a personally meaningful project is essential. He identifies the origin of thinking in perplexity, confusion, or doubt generated by "a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives" (Dewey, 1909, p. 189). The central element of thought is the act or possibility of considering other facts suggested by the present situation and connecting them in an effort to solve the problem perceived: "The problem fixes the end of thought and the end controls the process of thinking" (Dewey, 1909, p. 190).
While Piaget points out the importance of children's transitional times in getting to their genuine questions, Dewey (1909) warns that:
General appeals to a child (or to a grown-up) to think, irrespective of the existence in his own experience of some difficulty that troubles him and disturbs his equilibrium, are as futile as advice to lift himself by his boot-straps. (Dewey, 1909, p. 190)
In schools, therefore, "the materials furnished by way of information should be relevant to a question that is vital in the student's own experience" (Dewey, 1909, p. 336), otherwise the most ingenious pedagogical devices cannot stimulate this "mental ardor." "When the feeling of a genuine perplexity lays hold of any mind (no matter how the feeling arises)," he insists, "that mind is alert and inquiring, because stimulated from within" (Dewey, 1909, p. 342). Only if it comes from within, "the shock, the bite, of a question will force the mind to go wherever it is capable of going" (Dewey, 1909, p. 342). This conception of the inner (genuine and self-generated) question furthers the importance of looking beyond verbal communication to identify questions and their role in the learning process. Words alone may simply repeat the ideas of others or respond to their prompting; gestures, actions, and nonverbal utterances, in contrast, can be crucial indicators of internal thinking and questioning. How, then, do children express their perception of a problematical situation? How can we recognize a question?
How to Collect and Understand Data (Questions)
Acknowledging that many spontaneous questions are not verbalized posed potential obstacles for my study. I designed several methods to overcome those obstacles. Videotaping, according to Marshall and Rossman (1989), "is particularly valuable for discovery and validation. It documents nonverbal behavior and communication, such as facial expressions and motions" (p. 86). I also sought out talkative children who would more easily externalize their questioning and participate in the interviews.
The School, the Children and the Activity
The study explored the nature of questions and how questioning develops through the observation of four third-grade children as they built a model of a classroom they were about to move into. Through observation and videotaping, I attempted to develop a richly detailed portrait of each child's questioning within the activity and in connection to the others. Interviews with children and their teachers supplemented my observations.
The students attended a school in Rome, Italy, where I was principal. The school had 18 classrooms, 24 teachers, and about 360 children from K to 5. At that time, most of the classes were involved in a project aimed at improving learning by increasing schoolwide teacher collaboration. An active debate was stimulated around child learning, leading to the current project that emphasizes the need to observe and listen carefully to what children do and say in order to facilitate their learning.
Tina, Valeria, Francesco, and Roberto, all 8-year-olds, were selected by academic ability (to have a range of ability in Italian and mathematics) and by gender. Since the children had to move to a different room due to a school restructuring plan, they were asked to build a model of how they thought their new classrooms should be arranged. They would work on the basis of their own ideas and come up with their own solution. A wide variety of materials was available for their task (paper, toothpicks, crayons, etc.). They worked on the floor, around a plywood base of approximately 80 by 50 cm. I observed the children as they engaged with each other and listened closely to what they said.
Collecting and Understanding the Material
Data were collected by observing and videotaping the children as they worked on the project, and then by interviewing the children and their teachers individually. I watched the videos before interviewing the children. For each child, I noted specific segments of the videotape which needed to be explained, so I could quickly find and show them during the interview--an attempt that was reversed by the children who directed me to the segments THEY considered important, puzzling, funny, or controversial. Through much of the interviews, the children took the initiative and guided the discussion. I then wrote narratives of each of the five days of the project, focusing on events the children saw as the most intriguing, puzzling or hardest steps in the process. These were the events that generated questions and show their questioning as it developed throughout the activity.
Both contextualizing and categorizing strategies were used for analysis. I transcribed the videos and drew the miniature model as it developed during the various stages of its construction. I identified questions (or problems) the children raised as a group and individually, and themes emerged from this process. Then I analyzed the questions according to their form (verbal and nonverbal), their content (four major themes emerged), and their purpose (as possible ways of children's questioning).
What Are the Criteria for Calling Something a Question?
In reviewing videos and transcripts, I had two major concerns. First, looking at the data from the children's point of view, my adult perspective tended to interfere, forcing me to go back repeatedly to the videos and interviews. The second concern arose once I had accessed the children's point of view, namely, how to identify a question.
The Meaning of Questioning
In order to identify the questions asked by the children, it is essential to clarify the meaning of questioning and the kinds of questions that are the focus of my research. Fahey (1942) says that a question is a "verbal expression of a problematic situation existing in the mind of the questioner" (p.339). He expands upon this definition by explaining that:
Problematical was to be interpreted broadly enough to include realization of lack of specific information, awareness of gaps in relationships, or a consciousness of a conflict between present and past experience. The purpose of the question in terms of this definition would be the finding of a means of supplying the lack of information, closing the gap, or resolving the conflict. This definition obviously does not consider those inquiries made to gain time or attract attention as being questions in any psychological sense. (Fahey, 1942, p. 339)
This definition provides an extensive, though not definitive, picture of the components of the questioning process: a situation in which the questioner perceives and recognizes something as problematical, an expression made of that situation by the questioner, and a desire on the part of the questioner to answer the question. However, as Kearsley (1976) says, Fahey is incorrect in limiting the function of a question to "the elicitation of a verbal response," for questions can take various forms, from verbal to nonverbal, which in turn can be directed to others or ourselves. Dillon (1982) further distinguishes between potential questions (indicated by general curiosity and attention caught by something), implicit questions (in which interrogatives are not clearly perceived or expressed), and evident questions (which engage and state problematic aspects of the issue at stake).
In this framework, questions are viewed as part of a broader activity of questioning which includes the events, processes and activities that ground questions. Within this context, learning refers to the process of exploring and making sense of things, while questioning is the process of raising and developing questions once the learner has perceived conflicts he or she wants to resolve. This inclusive conception of questioning across the whole range of inquiry and modes of expression made it difficult to recognize the children's questions--at times I tended to include almost everything they said or did; at other times nothing seemed to fit my parameters.
The forms that questions can take as identified by Kearsley (1976) were the starting point for my efforts to develop criteria for identifying questions. I looked first at distinctions between verbal and nonverbal questions.
Verbal questions, Kearsley (1976) explains, can be expressed using the interrogative form either directly (yes/no or multiple alternative answers) or indirectly (questions with no question mark). But questions can also be expressed without using words, he adds, through gestures "such as questioning glances, raised eyebrows, shoulder or hand shrugs, and puzzled facial expressions" (Kearsley, 1976, p. 357). These nonverbal questions can be recognized most effectively by examining the context in which they are generated and the ways in which they are pursued by the children.
When asked directly, verbal questions are indicated by a question mark or, in spoken discourse, by typical intonations. Direct questions may take an open form which allows for multiple possible answers ("Why, what's here? Why no chairs over here? Valeria, why no chairs?," asks Roberto), or a closed form in which the question is directed toward specified alternatives (as in Tina's question, "Hey, Francesco, Francesco, are we doing the math one?," referring to the math classroom as opposed to the language classroom). When not in the interrogative form, verbal questions are expressed indirectly, meaning the question is implicit, for the learner is clearly questioning even if there is no question mark (as when Valeria questions the stability of the plywood, saying, "Now, let's see whether something moves").
Examples of children's words and actions help clarify these types of questions and underscore the importance of context for understanding why some utterances end up being called questions and others don't.
Verbal questions, direct. It is important to note that not all verbal queries with a question mark are real questions. On the other hand, questions do not necessarily need question marks. If one attends closely to context, what seems like a statement may in fact be a question.
* A question asked to check somebody else's understanding (as when Francesco asked Valeria "Did you understand?" to see if she understood how the door should be built) is not a genuine question. However, if the learner is trying to confirm their own understanding, it is a question (as in Francesco's "How big?" referring to the size of the window, or Roberto's "So, is this the teacher's desk?"). (1)
* Another example of a question mark that did not indicate a question was when Francesco removed the table he made because he did not like it. Leaving the old table to the side, he prepared to make a new one using materials he collected, saying, "I'll make another one, right?" His tone and his behavior indicated that this was not really a question; he simply wanted to inform the others about what he intended to make--a better table indeed. (However, as we shall see below, collecting materials was, in this instance, a question, since in doing so Francesco wondered what he would need to make the table.)
* When Valeria said, "Whattayou doing? Whattayou doing" in reaction to Tina who was making a lot of noise beating a lid, she was not indicating that she was puzzled by what her friend was doing, but rather that she wanted her to be quiet, as Tina's reaction confirmed.
* Other cases of verbal questions which are not in fact questions are questions asked for approval rather than as a step to be pursued later, cases of social exchange (Tina asking, "Do you like my little plant?"), or comments which imply reproach (Francesco's "If you knew it, then why did you do it?"). These questions are communicative but do not further the questioner's understanding.
* In contrast, when Valeria asked Francesco "What is that big table?" it was a real question on her part: its answer might affect her own building. The two children subsequently discussed the size of the teacher's desk with respect to the other table in the room and the blackboard's placement, eventually coming to agreement.
* Repetition provides another place to make useful distinctions about questions. When Valeria said "Here, I make the door here, right?" and then repeated herself when nothing happened, her second utterance was a simple repetition rather than another question. However, when the second question is a restatement made to confirm the previous question, each one was considered a question: "THAT ONE [the wall window], that one, do we have to draw it, that's it, not make a model of it, that one?," Francesco asked and then, incredulous, again, "The window too?!" Francesco was concerned with the notion of a model, i.e., what should be three-dimensional and what should "only be drawn." (2) Ultimately, if doubtful about a question, I turned to the context in which it was grounded. The context was always the reference for my understanding.
* A series of three questions addressed to Tina by Francesco helps elucidate what is meant by children's own questions. Reacting to Tina's doubts about the group's decision to clean the paint from the model instead of starting all over again, Francesco asked her, "What, was it better that we did it again?" Incredulous, he pushed her, "Whatta you saying that it was better that we didn't clean it?" Finally, he satisfied his doubts by replacing "cleaning" with "painting": "[you mean] that it was better that we did not paint it at all?" which was exactly his point. Did Francesco ask those questions to clarify anything related to either his or the group's work? I think not. He had no doubts about the viability of cleaning, but rather, wanted to understand Tina's opinion and possibly even convince her. These "questions," then, do not fall into the category of genuine questions which I am identifying here.
Verbal questions, indirect. Indirect questions are intrinsically more problematic. To recognize when a seemingly declarative verbal expression is in fact interrogative, and therefore to be called a question from the child's point of view, requires careful analysis and attention to the context in which it was generated.
* In classic examples of indirect questions, the verb indicates the interrogative nature of a statement. Typical interrogative verbs include to try ("Well, meanwhile I'll try with cotton, if that works," Valeria said, checking her ideas of how to improve the chairs' stability); to propose (trying again to solve the problem of stability, Valeria said, "Well, I suggest do this, let's take these, cotton or paper, listen Tina, we attach all the sticks here and ... we make the legs. THIS WAY IT MAY WORK!"); to see ("Now let's see whether something moves," said Valeria, questioning the model's stability at the very end of the project); and to do ("Let's do this, let's make the whole floor with the cotton," Tina desperately suggested, as a possible solution for saving the model from the paint that was ruining it).
* A recurrent and interesting mode in the use of the indirect form as question was when the children announced a hypothesis: "Well, meanwhile I'll try with cotton, if that works" (Valeria); "Let's try the paper!" (Roberto); "An idea! The cardboard would be better!' (Tina); and "Here, I'm putting some cotton, let's hope" (Francesco). These questions were somehow directed to themselves, too, as part of their own internal dialogue.
* The conditional tense may also reveal a question, as when Roberto seemed to figure out how to make the chairs and, exploring alternatives, explained, "Let's make the legs, we could do it in this way."
* In other cases, although the children seemed to be making a statement, they were actually questioning themselves or the others to explore their uncertainties. This was the case when Valeria made her proposal about the closet: "This might be fine as a closet. This, we may even put something in the middle, and then we'll close it." Or when Tina said, "The radiator, we'll make it right here," pointing to where it should be, or exclaimed, "An idea! The cardboard was better!" Sometimes the children's actions reinforced the questioning nature of their utterances. At other times the children's comments during the interviews helped correct my initial interpretations of statements which turned out to be internal discourse said aloud to test or develop still-uncertain ideas.
* Sometimes a final interrogative word would indicate that the child was looking for a reply, such as when Valeria, trying to solve the problem of orientation which involved the group in lively discussions, said, "Here, there's the door, here, the window, here's that huge ... that one there, right?," or when Francesco contradicted her, "Well, let's start over again, here, there's the door, right?". Similarly, when Valeria said, "Down here we make the window," her tone and behavior revealing her confusion about the placement of the windows and the door, thus indicating she was in fact asking a question.
* Tone and behavior also helped distinguish questions when Valeria offered an alternative proposal for solving the problem of the paint-spotted model saying, "We'll turn it over, and it would be a little bit cleaner," or when Roberto introduced his plan to the others: "Let's get some cotton, wet it and try to clean it." However, when Valeria urged the others to stop using paint ("Let's not use paint anymore!"), it was clear she was quite confident about her idea so it was not considered a question.
* Sometimes two similar statements can have very different meanings, requiring a particularly careful analysis to determine whether either is an indirect question. When Francesco and Valeria were discussing the door's placement on the plywood and Valeria showed Francesco where the door should be, he initially replied, "What, the door down here?! The door is ... over here." Perhaps because of Valeria's different opinion, he became doubtful, wondering where the door should be made, saying, "The door [unclear] hum, here." Though still phrased as a declarative, his tone and gesture showed that the second statement was a question.
Nonverbal questions. The importance of context became even more critical when it came to identifying nonverbal questions--which turned out to be intriguing in their diversity. A crucial factor for determining whether a gesture, expression, or action was a question was what happened before or after: Did the child eventually change anything or come up with a new idea? Afterward, was his or her initial idea stated differently? The following examples help clarify the nature of these questions.
* Discussing the door's placement during the first session, Francesco, not convinced by Valeria's statement, "looks straight in front of him, his eyes almost closed," the underlying question being, Is she right? Is it true that the door is there, on side A, as she says? Closing his eyes, he tried to remember the model room to resolve doubt. Shortly after, he told her where he thought the door was. Valeria's confident reply ("No, here, there was the window") made him wonder about it again. "Perplexed and doubtful," he thought some more. His implicit question seemed to be: Then, where is the door, there as she says or here as I say? to indicate soon afterwards where it really was, disagreeing with Valeria and meanwhile reviewing his own first idea.
* Another example of unverbalized doubt functioning as a question occurred when Valeria tried to figure out how to make a chair that would be both attractive and solid. Comparing the chair she had just finished with one she had already made, she noticed the second was higher than the first and did not look solid enough. "Perplexed, Valeria looks at both chairs," her look asking: "Hmm, these chairs look good enough, but are they stable? How can I improve them?" Soon thereafter, Valeria moved on to a verbal indirect question and a new attempt: "Well, meanwhile I'll try with cotton, see if that works."
* It is important to note that doubtful looks do not necessarily signify questions. For instance, when Roberto, trying to stick the chair to the plywood, "looks perplexed, or is he simply shy?" I ultimately did not consider it a question, for he seemed simply to be wondering what Francesco meant by his comment. On the other hand, when he "cuts sticks," trying to attach the chair to the plywood, I did consider it a question because he was wondering whether cutting the sticks could be the solution for inserting them in the plywood.
* I also did not consider it a question when Valeria was "perplexed and pensive." She was thinking about the chair made by Roberto, not with the purpose of trying to find something out, but rather to judge how well he had done it, as was confirmed by what followed. She took the chair, held it up looking at it--those funny hanging down legs!--bleating like a sheep [Baaa, baaa], then put it down, took it back and, holding it and looking at the camera, once again compared the chair to a sheep. After a few seconds, she looked around, then threw it away, as Roberto remained silent.
* As I observed the videos, it became clear that, in some cases, searching for materials was a form of question. For instance, as she worked on the sticks used for the window, Tina was looking for something that could make them stand, in effect asking: What should I use to insert them so they stay? Similarly, when Roberto went to the materials table to look for something appropriate, he took long sticks first and then cotton because he was still trying to make a good chair. Even when it was not immediately clear what the children were looking for, as when Valeria leaves looking for something, I still recognized it as a question because she clearly had something in her mind she wanted to try. However, when Francesco was "looking for the scissors," which could imply the question "Where are the scissors?" it meant that he needed to use the scissors, so it was not considered interrogative. Similarly, when Roberto came back, "bringing from the materials table the box full of corks," he in fact already knew what he wanted to try.
* Some statements might be viewed as either questions or answers. When Francesco puts glue between halves of a folded paper to make a table with a stronger twofold base, it was not a solution but rather a question because it was related to previous questions posed by the children and, in the overall development of the day, did not close the problem, but rather represented another step in the questioning process.
* A range of gestures and actions that expressed curiosity, tested or explored new ideas, filled gaps, or tried new procedures were also considered questions. These included: measuring distances, checking an object's stability, lifting the plywood, inserting toothpicks into the plywood in various ways, replacing single small pieces with large pieces of cotton, and changing tools to make more visible chairs. Each of these actions indicated the inquisitive nature of the children's ideas as they experimented during the process of building the model.
The critical factor in all these questions was that what the children said and did came from themselves, as a personal question, not because somebody else suggested it. Even if someone else originally asked a question, it only became a genuine question for the students when they asked it themselves, i.e., when they saw the contradiction or the puzzle they did not see before and set out to solve or explain it.
ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION
What Are the Implications for Teachers?
The children worked hard to solve their problems, struggling with the placement of objects, their sizes and shapes, the three-dimensional structure of the model, and which materials to use. Their questioning developed throughout the project, both verbally and through their actions.
I focused on times when a child expressed his or her need to stop doing something and think about it, to pause and look around, to interrupt his or her building to change procedure or to find a way to accomplish something. Ultimately, I identified questions as the gestures, expressions, actions, or words which signaled the events in which the children's work showed a "discontinuity" in the process that led to action or insight. I then had to determine (a) whether it was the child's own question and (b) whether it conveyed an interrogative in connection to the child's own process of building. Context was thus of crucial importance in identifying and working with questions.
As I observed the children and reviewed the data, I came to understand that any dialogue, gesture, or action that was interrogative should be considered a question and that the children's questions should not be considered in isolation, but rather examined in the context in which they were generated and embedded (Duckworth, 1978). My expectation that I would be able to link a certain number of questions into a sort of segment which could be isolated as a unit for analysis was naive. As I worked over the transcripts and the accounts of the children's actions, the continuity of the process emerged, and it became clear that I could not focus on questions as independent segments of analysis. From there, I decided to write the narratives of each day's work as an organic process within which the children's questions made full sense.
This part of my study was a wonderful and exhausting process of discovery which showed that recognizing what could be called a question is a crucial first step in studying questioning as it relates to learning. The children showed many ways of questioning beyond the external form of verbal expression. In revealing their questions, the children surfaced the many facets of their learning as it developed over a meaningful project: clear ideas about what they wanted to find out; a sense of something that is less developed but needs to be figured out; exploratory ways of developing their understandings of these initial concepts; nonverbal inquiry through actions as attempts to find out what might work or to complement their verbal utterances; and, ultimately, an internal and personal discourse with themselves. Acknowledging and appreciating the value of these ideas and questions is the first step in helping students learn. Valeria clearly articulates the creative explorative process of doing a project as the essence of learning:
All the children who work on a project, well I, for example, call them artists, all, all of them, all of those children, because sometimes they do things that they are not able to do, that they don't expect to.
The significance lies in shedding light into the complexity of learning by discovering how to recognize the questions learners ask for themselves as they make sense of the world and construct their knowledge. As a student of Duckworth, I explored learning and its complexities to better understand the process of knowing as a personal construction and, in that context, the role of teaching.
So what is the role of teaching, if knowledge must be constructed by each individual? In my view, there are two aspects to teaching. The first is to put students into contact with phenomena related to the area to be studied--the real thing, not books or lectures about it--and to help them notice what is interesting; to engage them so they will continue to think and wonder about it. The second is to have the students try to explain the sense they are making, and, instead of explaining things to students, to try to understand their sense. (Duckworth, 2006, pp. 173-174)
The children tried to explain the sense they were making through their questions. By recognizing children's questions--a difficult task since they take different forms across the whole range of inquiry--teachers can try to understand the children's sense and learn more about their learning. Expanding our understanding of questions increases our knowledge of how children learn and more fully traces when, and how, children learn. These insights help teachers recognize the paths that children go through as they learn and, as researchers themselves, reflect on their own teaching fostering learning, as confirmed by the teachers of this study: Watching the videos together and focusing on children's question (what they did and said), they unexpectedly came to see things that they hadn't seen before, eventually reviewing their thoughts about their teaching.
One teacher said: "It is very interesting to see it [the videos] again, very interesting. We should do these kinds of things more often," suggesting that classroom, field and other types of experiences should be included in teacher education programs.
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(1.) The questions recognized as such are bold, whether quotations or text, whether they come from a child or from my own descriptive test.
(2.) Only after I interviewed the children did I realize that they were not asking what technique was more appropriate for the project, but rather were trying to understand the three-dimensional issue they would eventually face.
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|Title Annotation:||CHAPTER 4|
|Author:||Cifone, Maria Vittoria|
|Publication:||Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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