What Good Questions Have You Asked Today?

When my daughter was in Kindergarten, I remember picking her up at the end of the school day and looking forward to hearing about her day. I would ask her, “Kai, how was school today? What did you learn?” Her answer, which was the same answer for what seemed like months, was simply “dinosaurs.” Now, I don’t know about you but it was a bit maddening for me. I knew that there was no way that she was learning about dinosaurs for months on end. What I pieced together, though, was that she really didn’t want to have her mother interrogating her at the end of the day. And, like any reputable early childhood program, so much of what children learn is integrated into their day in a way that feels like they are playing. Perhaps she didn’t quite know how to tell me what she learned. Nevertheless, I was determined to find a way to have a conversation with her about her day.

I had heard about the Nobel laureate in physics, Isidor Isaac Rabi who credits his success to his mother. “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to,” he recounts. “Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: So? Did you learn anything today? But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist.” With this story in my head, I reframed my approach to my daughter. As we drove to school most mornings, I would say, “Kai, make sure you ask good questions today.” I told her that when I saw her at the end of the day I would ask her to share with me at least one good question that she asked. This approach made a qualitative difference in our conversations about her learning. It gave her something to think about in advance of the school day, allowing her to think about her thinking– the metacognitive approach to learning.

Angelo V. Ciardiello researched and wrote extensively about the value of asking good questions. Cardiello identified four different types of questions, memory questions, convergent thinking questions, divergent thinking questions, and evaluative questions. Words that might identify a memory question are ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘where,’ and ‘when.’ So, going back to my kindergarten conversation with my daughter, she could ask the question, “when did dinosaurs live on the earth?” Words that might identify a convergent thinking question include ‘why,’ ‘how,’ or ‘in what ways.’ Convergent thinking questions typically explain, state relationships, or compare and contrast. A convergent thinking question for my daughter might have been, “why did dinosaurs become extinct?” Words that might identify a divergent thinking question include ‘imagine,’ ‘suppose,’ ‘predict,’ ‘how might,’ ‘if…then,’ or ‘what are some possible consequences?’ Divergent thinking questions involve predicting, hypothesizing, inferring or reconstructing. A divergent thinking dinosaur question might be, “Imagine how humans might act differently today if the Tyrannosaurus Rex still roamed the earth.” Evaluative thinking questions might begin with, ‘what do you think,’ or ‘what is your opinion.’ Such questions involve valuing, judging, defending, or justifying choices. Evaluative dinosaur questions might be, “Could you defend the preservation of the Tyrannosaurus Rex if it still roamed the earth? Is there a value to ensuring they survive?”

Encouraging students to ask good questions and teaching them about the value of different kinds of questions aids them both in their comprehension of information and in retaining the information. When students can take ownership of the question, their learning is deeper and longer-lasting.

But asking good questions shouldn’t just be the purview of young people. It is a useful practice for individuals of all ages, whether asking questions about dinosaurs, our economy, our political system, or any other topics of importance today. Asking good questions is a key aspect of critical thinking, one of the key tenets of “scholarship” in Roycemore’s Portrait of a Graduate, and is an essential skill to master in order to design innovative solutions and solve the complex problems our society faces today.

In the days and weeks ahead, consider asking your children to think about asking good questions in advance of the school day and then using that as an opportunity to have a great conversation at the end of the day. If you try it, I’d love to hear about your experience.

In partnership for the education of your student,

Adrianne Finley Odell

Head of School