The Power of Questions: Empowering Students to Learn from Their Experience

Were you ever lectured by an adult? Do you remember it as being particularly effective, or did you feel a little like Charlie Brown listening to his teacher? “Waaa, waaa, waaa, waaa…” Most of us have had this experience.

Have you ever found yourself lecturing a child, with the best of intentions, in an attempt to help them learn a lesson or process a situation in a manner that you feel will be productive? It might sound something like this, “MIka! Dana is mad because you didn’t keep your hands on your own body. If you keep your hands on your own body I’m sure your friends will respect your work. We always keep our hands on our own body in our classroom.” Apparently MIka doesn’t! Making the connection that other people are affected by our actions is an important life lesson. However, what might MIka’s reaction be in this situation to this important life lesson given by his teacher?

Education comes from the Latin root, educare, which means to “draw forth.” Too many times, adults try to stuff in information through lectures (whether short or long), despite the fact that our experience, on both the giving and receiving end, shows us that lectures aren’t effective. In the heat of the moment, the information that we’re delivering seems important, relevant, and correct.

Curiosity Questions, are an incredible tool to help children process an experience, event or natural consequence so that they can draw their own conclusions and learn from their mistakes. It is a form of Socratic Questioning. To use Montessori terms, the adult uses Socratic questioning as a control of error so that the child learns through self-discovery. You’ll notice that most Curiosity Questions begin with “what” or “how.”

Here are some Curiosity Questions:

  • “I noticed_________________. What happened?” (Listen)
  • “How did that happen?” (Listen)
  • “What caused that to happen?” (Listen)
  • “What did you learn from this experience?” (Listen)
  • “How do you plan to solve the problem?” (Listen)
  • “What ideas do you have to prevent this from happening in the future?” (Listen)
  • “How can I help?” (Listen)

Here are a couple of examples:

Natural Consequence

Rajiv, age 8, was taking a cleaning kit from the shelf to clean up after himself after working on a geography project. He was swinging the kit around his body has he walked. While traversing the classroom and swinging the cleaning kit, he accidentally swung the cleaning kit into the small moveable alphabet on one of the shelves. The moveable alphabet scattered all over the floor. The cleaning kit contents all dropped out of the kit, and the cleaning solution spilled all over the floor and all over the moveable alphabet cards. Maria, Rajiv’s teacher, saw everything. She was annoyed, as she watched this scene interrupt the whole room, just after she noticed the students being very engaged. As well, she had asked Rajiv no less than 5 times that week not to swing the cleaning kit. Maria quickly decided to allow the scene to unfold without her intervention. She observed a number of children leave their work and start helping Rajiv to clean up the moveable alphabet, and cleaning fluid. During the cleanup, the children asked Rajiv, “Would you please be more helpful next time?” When the children were finished cleaning, Maria approached Rajiv, and instead of a scolding, followed by a lecture, she used Curiosity Questions:

Maria: “Rajiv, what happened with the moveable alphabet?”
Rajiv: “I knocked it over, by accident.”
Maria: “What caused that to happen?”
Rajiv: “Well, I was kind of swinging the cleaning kit.”
Maria: “Wow, that was a lot of mess to clean up. What did you learn from this experience?”
Rajiv: “I think I’ll not swing the cleaning kit around so I won’t knock anything down.”
Maria: “It sounds like you figured it out.”

Social Difficulty

Let’s use the example from above. MIka, age 4 1/2, has been having a real hard time with his classmates. He gets frustrated easily and then hits. During the morning work cycle, the teacher notices MIka crying next to his mat. There are puzzle map pieces all over the floor. The assistant informs the teacher that Dana flipped his puzzle over after he hit her.

Teacher: “MIka, I notice that you are very sad. What happened?”
MIka: “Dana flipped my puzzle over, and I worked on it all morning.”
Teacher: “I can understand why you are so sad. You put a lot of work into that. What caused Dana to flip your puzzle over.”
MIka: “Well, I hit her. She was bossing me.”
Teacher: “So, you got mad and hit her?”
MIka: “Yeah.”
Teacher: “Then what happened?”
MIka: “Then she flipped my puzzle map over.”
Teacher: “So, what did you learn from this?”
MIka: “Maybe I shouldn’t hit.”
Teacher: “Would you like some help talking to Dana. She looks sad too.”

Younger Children

The above examples are children who are older than 4. Younger children sometimes need more prompting, as they are still very concrete thinkers.

For example:

  • “What would happen if you brought Dana the Peace Rose instead of hitting her?”
  • “What would happen if you picked up the milk by the handle?”
  • “How might she respond if you asked nicely?”

Avoid “Why” Questions

  • Quite simply, what do children often say when we ask “why”? ~ “I don’t know.”

Results

We can’t make children learn important life lessons, but we can prepare the social/emotional environment to increase their chances of making healthy decisions and learning from their mistakes. It’s important to note, that children don’t always answer the Curiosity Questions exactly the way would like them to. But as we well know as Montessorians, that stare into the distance that shows they’re thinking about and processing the situation is far more important than the “correct answer.”

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About the Author

Chip DeLorenzo

Chip DeLorenzo

An experienced Montessori Educator who has served in a variety of roles for over 25 years, Chip DeLorenzo is a Positive Discipline Trainer and co-author of Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom. He works with teachers, parents and schools across the globe to help them to create Montessori environments that promote mutual respect, cooperation and responsibility.

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