On Sunday, I heard a young man who is a graduate of Jewish day schools talk about the centrality of asking questions in Jewish practice and thought. He noted that at a recent seder with a motley group of his post-college friends, he raised the question about why do we put very young children through the experience of asking the four questions. Why would we have them ask such important questions and why does this play such a significant role during a seder? Only after finishing college, he realized how important this practice was. He realized that it was paradigmatic of a Jewish education in general and of his education in particular. He connected this experience of asking to the traditional Jewish study of text where questioning is the mode of study.
Parents of young children know that their two and three year olds tend to ask questions incessantly. It is how they begin to understand how the world works. Researchers note that by the time children reach middle school, they tend to ask very few questions. Most people who study this phenomenon argue that this is not simply a developmental effect. Instead, it appears that since so much of schooling is about “getting the right answer,” children learn to stop asking questions. Additionally, the feeling that there is not enough time in the day to cover all that must be taught increases the pressure for teachers to structure lessons by giving information rather than opening up possibilities for questioning.
What is it about asking questions that is so important to the development of a young person? A questioning mind is one that thirsts for learning. It is that impassioned learning that we talk about at Wornick – where students explore and become absorbed in their learning. Questioning permits a learner take control of their learning, and student initiated learning leads to the possibility of an increase in student’s linking pieces of information. This linking has lasting positive effects on retention of knowledge.
Student questioning challenges pre-conceived ideas. It gives children the confidence to advocate for their own views. When questioning as a mode of teaching is married to teaching respect for others then students develop that critical thinking skill of understanding and valuing multiple perspectives.
The give and take of questioning builds and strengthens relationships. Have you ever been in a one-sided conversation where you ask the other person questions and the other person simply answers. That other person never turns to you to ask you anything. The person who fails to ask, misses opportunities to understand and to connect to the questioner. When interacting with people – long lasting friends as well as new people – questioning is a valuable social skill.
Dr. Isidor Rabi, Nobel Laureate in Physics (1944), underscores the significance of questioning among young children when he was queried about formative influences on his career path. He said “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘Nu? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’… ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist.”
Our curriculum places a high premium on student questioning. It is why all of our graduates find success in high school and beyond. Alumni parents universally report that they are so surprised by what terrific self-advocates our graduates are. Alumni notice that they are among the few in their classes who frequently raise their hands in class, never afraid to question a teacher, a text or a peer. It all begins when that very young child is given the honor of singing the four questions at the seder.