I was working with an organization that ran an afterschool program at a local park for ages 3-5. I was on a quest to learn how to spark and hold children's attention for more than a few minutes. As any parent can attest, this was no easy task.
One Friday we decided to run up the nearest mountain to see the view. So we ran (actually we walked and took many breaks) up the mountain (actually a small grassy knoll) to see what we could see. On the journey, one little girl found a feather. She picked it up, admired it for all of two seconds, and turned to throw it back on the ground. This was the moment I was looking for, a spark of interest, a glance with a furrowed brow, an indication of curiosity bubbling just below the surface.
I exclaimed excitedly, “Woah, what is that? Can I see?”
Noticing my interest, she perked up and immediately saw the feather with fresh eyes. What is this piece of the world that this other person finds so fascinating?
“It’s a feather!” She replied. She flew down the path to stand before me, breathless. I took the feather and turned it over and over, held it up to catch the light, and pointed out little details to make the feather seem even more special.
What color is it? What does it remind you of? Have you seen anything like it before? In my most enthusiastic tone I proclaimed that I was enamored with this feather and wanted to know more. With each question she paused and considered her answer. At this point the rest of the children had gathered around, having witnessed my displays of amazement. Their curiosity began to boil. At this point we moved from simple questions of observation to questions of wonderment.
Does it remind you of anything? Who dropped it? I hope they aren’t cold!
I began thumbing through my trusty Sibley’s Bird Guide, miming cluelessness. I lingered on the page that showed a large number of big black birds, hoping someone would take the bait. The little girl jumped on the opportunity pointed to an illustration of an American Raven and whispered, “It looks like he might have the same feathers.”
I ask, “I wonder if there are any ravens around to ask if they lost a feather?” We all leapt up, eyes scanning the trees and bushes. Curiosity and wonder had bubbled over. The invitation for adventure had taken hold. A small moment of interest had expanded into a rich medley of facts, knowledge, and imagination. We spend the rest of the afternoon hunting for ravens, crows, making up all sorts of stories about where they were, and what they were doing. A particularly memorable scenario the children imagined was that Mr. Raven had come to visit Mr. Squirrel, each with nuts to trade.
A series of questions, guided by purpose and intent to inspire, can fan a spark of interest into a flame of burning passion. This is the driving force behind the true art of questioning. Questions not meant to stump, not meant to prove anyone right or wrong; but questions meant to leave breadcrumbs of desire for the student to follow. Properly executed, this process becomes a way of thinking, extending far beyond the day’s lesson. From the four years I mentored young children with this philosophy, I found that there are three stages of questioning that are most effective in igniting interest. I call these stages, I Know, I Think, I Wonder. These stages of questioning can turn a simple and fleeting moment of interest into a full-fledged journey of discovery.
Stage 1: I Know
In this stage ask a question or series of questions the child knows the answer to. This is designed to boost their confidence and build excitement. Children respond strongly to the energy and mood of those around them, so displaying true curiosity and excitement is key here.
Example: Woah, what is that? What color is it? Where did you find that?
Stage 2: I Think
In this stage ask a question that the child may know the answer to. The goal is for the child to engage in some critical thinking to connect a previous piece of information with context in order to frame new information. If you receive a shrug, or an ‘I dunno’, go back to the first step. Figuring out how best to engage on this level will become more natural with practice.
Example: Does it remind you of anything? Who dropped it?
Stage 3: I Wonder
In this stage ask a question the child does not know the answer to. This is the big ask, the invitation to be excited and inspired. The goal here is to invite the child to embark on a journey of knowledge with you, together. Frustration can come easily for children, especially with a new subject. However, when you too are curious, you can lead them into a beautiful moment where something mundane becomes amazing.
Example: Do you see any other birds this color? I wonder if there are any ravens around here to ask if they lost a feather?