When you are teaching your children, do you ask frequent questions? I know I do! ‘Look at the trees, what colours do you see?’, ‘How many steps are there up to the station?’, ‘Can you tell me what that story was all about? Why was the King hiding?’ etc. Lately I’ve been made to stop and question my own questioning. Is this a good and helpful approach? Or can it paradoxically be harmful? Or is the truth of the matter that both are true, and it all depends on the type of questions asked, their timing and tact, and also a little on the learning style/ personality of the child?
From John Holt’s ‘How Children Learn’, he cautions against the use of excessive questioning. He notes that it can betray a lack of confidence in the child to interact with the materials, indeed with the world around them. It presumes that our interpretation and understanding of a situation is superior to theirs, and presumes that it will be of benefit for the child to hear what the adult has to say. Charlotte Mason describes a similar concept. She refers to it as a skill that the parent needs to learn, that of watchful attentiveness without intrusion. 'Masterly inactivity'. By way of example, she describes a mother out in the woods for the day with her children, who allows them to explore, to investigate, to play, to imagine, to discover; this mother does not sit idly by, but is available to answer the questions of the children, perhaps to direct them towards an area of particular interest, and of course to supervise regarding safety (depending on the ages and ability of the children). Reading some of her work, I can see that at times I may have been too keen to make the most of each ‘learning opportunity’ by perhaps detracting from it by my own explanations, rather than giving my children the time and space to discover for themselves. ‘I believe that all children bring with them much capacity which is not recognised by their teachers, chiefly intellectual capacity (always in advance of motor power), which we are apt to down in deluges of explanation, or dissipate in futile labours in which there is no advance’.
I’m currently reading Volume 6 of the Complete Works of Charlotte Mason, entitled, ‘A Philosophy of Education’. This book was written towards the end of her career, and she frequently reflects back to her earlier writings, indicating areas where her views have either changed, or become strengthened. This volume discusses the issues involved in the education of children ‘of school age’ – by which she means, by and large, children aged six or older. NB: It is important that those with younger children (myself included) do not feel that our children are not achieving that perfect attention and recall that she describes with a sense of discouragement of failure, but rather that this is something attainable, and we can put in place the necessary foundations now.
She describes the same issue as John Holt. Breaking it down a little:
1) Children should be motivated by the hunger for knowledge, the love of increasing understanding of the world around them, rather than simply to jump through a certain hoop or to pass a particular test. The former is expansive, the child grows as a person, retains and can recall the information, but really understands it and can build upon it, whereas in the latter, the child often becomes fatigued, disinterested, does not necessarily understand or appreciate the facts they may have memorised, and has no lasting benefit.
2) Rather than repetition, attention should be expected first time round. This is a skill (or habit) that can be learnt; previously I felt somewhat discouraged that my children did not display this excellent attention. However, a friend reminded me that mine were much younger. Now, six months later, I am starting to see a real difference as they sit and listen, and are able to recall and describe. Don’t be discouraged. Just maybe make the section of reading a little shorter.
3) But relating to the above, don’t make it simpler! I love the way Charlotte Mason talks about ‘twaddle’. Holt describes something similar here; why should children prefer simple, contrived stories which are considered ‘suitable for their age?’ She describes primary school aged children (aged under 11 or 12) who were able to really embrace literature which is often now only encountered towards the more senior end of secondary school; classical Greek writings or Shakespeare for example. Why should children not have their minds expanded so that they can grow, imagine, learn, develop? ‘To introduce children to literature is to instal them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served. But they must learn to know literature by being familiar with it from the very first.’
4) By asking a child to narrate back to you part of the story or the passage, or to describe their walk in the countryside, what you are really doing is teaching the child to interact with the material. They are not regurgitating facts and information, but rather are processing what they have received, integrating it, assimilating it, and then bringing it all together in their narration. This process is what Holt (quotingDawkins extensively) describes as creating their own model.
5) I love this comment: ‘Children so taught express themselves in forcible and fluent English and use a copious vocabulary.’ Now I also need to remark, this is not something which is necessarily seen as popular or desirable in today’s world! I remember once, my eldest son (then aged two and a half), said ‘female mallard’ when looking at a picture of a duck in a child’s book. My friend (a paediatrician for whom I have respect both personally and professionally) commented that he’d struggle at school if he spoke like that, and that it would soon be drummed out of him. I do not wish to sound ‘superior’ or elitist in any way, but rather to comment that sometimes children with a rich vocabulary and a different outlook to the majority may be seen as ‘precocious’ or that as parents, we are trying to ‘prove something’. We are not, and to me it is a sad reflection on today’s society and the mainstream education which seems to favour regression towards the mean.
I was interested to note Charlotte Mason’s comments about her teacher training institute: ‘In our Training College, the students are not taught how to stimulate attention, how to keep order, how to give marks, how to punish or even how to reward, how to manage a large class or a small school with children in different classes. All these things come by nature in a school where the teachers know something of the capacities and requirements of children.’ That both challenged and excited me! Education is far more, far greater, than simply achieving control in a class. However, having known several friends train in both primary and secondary education, it seems that a significant proportion of time is invested in what basically amounts to ‘crowd control’. It is assumed that most children will not want to be there, will be easily distracted, will be disobedient and rebellious; and by the point that assumption has been made, I believe things have already gone too far and the child knows that this is the type of behaviour that is expected. Today’s schools seem to be a far cry from the environment of active, stimulated, interactive learners that both Mason and Holt have described.
I find this question of interaction with the learning material, of assimilation, processing, understanding, of integration extremely challenging. I have undertaken training in Higher Education – of university students, and postgraduates; and one of the most taxing questions is just how to achieve the desire for knowledge and understanding rather than simply facts and information. It is difficult! The majority of students I encounter are those who could be considered ‘high achievers’. They have ‘excelled’ throughout much of their formal schooling, and yet how does one judge this ‘excellence’? Is it simply that they have scored highly on the necessary tests and exams? Often that may be so! A student may have done extremely well in objective terms, and yet never have learnt to become a self-motivated lifelong learner. Personally, despite straight As, top marks in two degrees and a PhD, I only think I fully appreciated how to become a self-directed learner mid-way through my PhD when I encountered challenges to which there was not a simple answer, difficulties which my ‘teacher’ (or ‘supervisor’) could not simply answer, problem for which the solutions were not well defined (hence the need for the research I was directing). I am not alone; in fact I would suggest that we often consider self-directed learning, processing of information etc as a postgraduate skill. However, what both Holt and Mason are arguing for, half a century apart from one another, is that this should be the driving principle that children are brought up with, and upon which all subsequent education is built.
The family that really demonstrated to me this benefit in home education (although it may exist within other methods of education too; just this is not something I have seen) had seven children aged between four and nineteen years of age. The teenagers were astonishing in that they could clearly express and articulate their views, how they had reached those views, the evidence in favour and the arguments against. They were not indoctrinated ‘clones’ of one another, were not dominated by factual recall, but rather had been given the resources and the gentle direction necessary to find their own stance. (This family used Sonlight, a Christian literature based curriculum, which seems to follow many of the principles advocated by Charlotte Mason).
So where does this leave me with regard to questioning? I suppose simply to take greater care. Like Holt, to take a step back and watch what my children are doing and saying, to delight in their fascination in tiny detail, but to give them the time and space to work things out for themselves, or to respond to their questions in a simple, not overly expansive manner. What we already do is look things up in books when we get home (for example birds or flowers). By doing so, I am helping them see where the information can be gained. And I don’t always use ‘children’s’ books, but whichever source seems to describe things clearly, concisely and eloquently.
I’m sure I’ll revisit this area of questioning again before too long. What are your views? Do you question too much? Do you ask basic questions to test your child’s comprehension? Or do you enable them to assimilate information and form a strong foundational model upon which to build?