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Ed. Magazine

Is It Better to Ask Questions or Listen Carefully?

New study looks at what really sparks curiosity and learning
Illustration of a person speaking into another's ear
Illustration: Jason Schneider

What happens to learning and curiosity when some children are encouraged to ask questions and others to sit and listen carefully? That’s what Associate Professor Elizabeth Bonawitz wanted to find out with a team of other educators and scientists when they followed 103 children, ages 5 to 7, as they participated in a series of virtual science lessons over a two-week period. What they found, as detailed in a new paper published this summer, is that while curiosity might kill the cat, it actually helps children learn more — and value what they’re learning. This past fall, Bonawitz spoke to Ed. about asking and listening, willingness-to-pay, and the million-dollar question.

Elizabeth Bonawitz

Elizabeth Bonawitz

One group was encouraged to ask questions and the other to listen carefully, correct?
Exactly. Before the first lesson, the child was told the purpose of the lessons, depending on which group they had been randomly assigned to before the study started. We told children: “I want you to get really good at [asking questions/ listening carefully]. [Question asking/careful listening] is super important because [asking questions/listening] is an amazing way to learn about new, cool things! [Question asking/listening closely] is a great skill for you to use in school, and I want us to have a goal of becoming really good [question askers/listeners] so that we can be some of the best learners in the future!” This goal was reaffirmed at the start of each subsequent lesson.

What were the students learning about?
Each child had 10 different online sessions with us, so we saw them every day for two weeks. The topic lessons were designed to be consistent with the United States’ Next Generation Science Standards for kindergarten, so they included topics like animal hibernation, camouflage, and building homes. Each lesson consisted of three parts: a story from a book, a video, and an activity. For example, in the animal-plant systems lesson, child-teacher pairs read a story about honeybee homes, watched a video about how bees make honey, and then made “honey” themselves with cornstarch and water.

How did you measure what they learned?
A new experimenter, who didn’t know which intervention the children had been assigned, tested children on their content knowledge from the training — both information that was directly taught and generalized knowledge that they might have developed. They also showed children a new picture of an animal and asked them how many questions they could think of to ask about it. Finally, we gave children a generalized measure of science curiosity called “willingness- to-pay”; we showed them a picture of a video they could watch and asked if they wanted some stickers or to watch the video. If they wanted to watch the video, we increased the “pot” of stickers until they switched to preferring the stickers. If they wanted the stickers, we decreased the “pot” until they switched to preferring the video. This gave us a “value” measure children put on new science information (the video).

What did you learn?
I was expecting children in the question training to ask a lot more questions in the follow-up task and was hoping they might show some improvement of knowledge and some improvement of generalized curiosity/interest in science content as measured by the “willingness-to-pay” task. We did not see strong evidence that the question asking training taught children to simply ask more questions: Children in the question-asking condition did not ask more questions about a novel animal than children in the listening condition. However, we found a whopping effect on “willingness-to-pay.” Children in the question-asking training were willing to pay many more stickers for new science content than children in the careful listening condition. We also found that children in the question-asking condition gained marginally more science knowledge than the careful listeners. Furthermore, practice with question-asking was more beneficial for children with lower baseline knowledge, suggesting that question-asking shows promise for enhancing children’s motivation to learn and equalizing academic disparities.

Kids naturally ask questions, sometimes nonstop, but you mention that scientific curiosity in elementary school typically decreases over time. Why does this happen?
This is a great question. There are many possible hypotheses on the table. One is that many teachers and schools are forced to focus on teaching and testing rote facts, rather than focusing on the process of discovery and the causal mechanisms that explain the processes. It’s hard to develop large-scale standardized tests that measure processes of discovery, so it’s understandable that the focus has become to teach to the test. Further, people might mistakenly believe that young children are not capable of understanding causal mechanisms, but this kind of knowledge is accessible to preschoolers (and possibly younger) and supports abstract reasoning and intuitive theory building. The mind is naturally predisposed to get reward from building models of the world, but there is not a lot of reward in memorizing facts. So this focus in U.S. schools on facts over discovery might quash curiosity. Second, teachers and parents have agendas and limits on time — this requires stopping the endless questions to focus on the “test” information — and so children might learn this kind of searching is not valuable. Third, many teachers and parents find science intimidating so they might, unintentionally, model fear or avoidance around these topics, which could be absorbed by children. Finally, curiosity is sparked by uncertainty, but many schools believe there is a “right answer” and that teachers must always appear knowledgeable. By not modeling intellectual humility and noting our own uncertainty about the world, we pass these curiosity-killing beliefs onto children.

How do teachers balance encouraging questions with keeping kids on task?
Well, this is the million-dollar question. How do we foster a continued love of learning and empowerment with the fact that we are limited in our time and topics? Even in our own study, we found that more questions is not necessarily better. In our study, children in the question- asking condition who asked more questions during the training did not outperform children who asked less in the same condition. Educators and psychologists have long talked about the importance of “quality” over “quantity” — and questions are likely no exception. Goren Gordon is a friend and brilliant roboticist also studying children’s curiosity. He visits his children’s school once a week and encourages children to ask questions. I believe he awards a point for every question asked; two points for every question asked to which he doesn’t know the answer; and three points for every question asked to which Google does not have an answer. The children love his visits and by the end of the school year are really thinking hard about what he’s talking about to see if they can stump him. So, rewarding children for “quality” might be one tool that gets kids engaging their wonder and still keeps classrooms focused on topics at hand.

Overall, why are questions important?
For teachers and parents, questions help the teacher see where confusions are arising to allow more effective lesson building. But questions can also build interest, curiosity, and even support learning directly. For example, questions can empower the student to take ownership over their own learning, which might result in further interest outside the classroom. Questions are a great way for students to practice thinking about the broader connection of what they are learning. Questions also help a learner identify areas where they still have uncertainty and require resolution. Questions are a means of “learning by thinking” — by framing knowledge as a question, learners help focus their own thinking. They may highlight conflicts in thinking, which is a necessary step towards conceptual change. In this way, simply asking a question might help a learner discover an answer they didn’t know they had all along!

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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