The Power of Questions: Foster Curiosity and Facilitate Learning

Curiosity—asking questions, investigating, experimenting, exploring ideas—has long been considered signs of intelligence. So, why is the old proverb, “Curiosity killed the cat” still alive and well today?

Interestingly, the original form of the proverb was not about curiosity at all. In his circa 1599 play, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare wrote, “Care killed the cat,” with care meaning worry or sorrow.  The earliest known printed reference to the use of curiosity killing the “cat ” was found in a “Handbook of Proverbs” dating all the way back to 1873. Somehow the cat version superseded the original proverb.

So, if a cat can have nine lives, let’s give “curiosity” its due and resuscitate this often squashed characteristic of brilliance. The tendency to ask questions can be a sign of genius. Even still, the best of parents and teachers, at times, stifle curiosity in children. Schedules, rules, family and classroom dynamics, curriculum, and standardized testing all play their role.

It’s easy to slip into the mode of providing information to children without stopping for questions. However, the finest teachers make one key point and stop, checking for comprehension by saying, “Any questions on this?” And they do it in a non-hurried way and with open body posture, which creates the silence and space for deeper thinking, all before moving on to the next point.

Kids are keen observers of nonverbal communication. If teachers and parents ask this with furrowed brows, frowns on their faces, when checking their watches, or with closed body posture—arms crossed, hands in pockets, etc —most children will not ask any questions at all.

What about the question “Do you understand?” We’ve all experienced the teacher or parent asking in a stern, disciplinary tone, “Now, do you understand me?” And what do we readily say, just to escape the situation? “Yes, I do!”

Why is that?  Even if said in a happy tone, the question “Do you understand?” does not invite exploration because it is closed. “Closed Questions” hold up a stop sign to any further communication. What typifies a closed question?  Those that begin with “Do/Did, Is/Are, Have you” all qualify as closed.  A one-word yes or no response to these questions is most common.

Questions hold enormous power; the right ones can open minds, which increase communication bandwidth. To keep the communication portals wide open and to facilitate deeper learning, use “Open Questions,” which are typically these: What, When, How, and Why.

An additional benefit to open-ended questions is that they can engage the mind into varying forms of thought, which acts as a key releasing a lock. Beyond just listening to information, active thinking processes — such as divergent, critical, and analytical — empty out some space in the mind, allowing room for more information to be absorbed and retained.

Try thinking of it this way: providing information without asking questions is like pouring water into an already half-filled bowl. The more the parent/teacher instructs without stopping for clarification, the more the bowl fills up. Soon, it’s overflowing, spilling out onto the desk and floor. The bowl cannot contain anymore; neither can the child’s mind.

Excellent teaching involves good communication, which is a two-way street. By interspacing information with questions, kids’ minds can unhook, can release a bit, which makes room for more information to be put in and to be absorbed.

A recent study by Joseph Jay Williams, a cognitive scientist, revealed the value of questions as a teaching technique, though a different twist from this discussion. His research states that “turning questions back to children” enhance their learning. It states that though kids can spout off facts, they often times do not understand underlying principles or concepts.

Replying to questions with questions takes thoughtfulness and practice. Teachers and parents alike could benefit from such practice. But in the end, the biggest winners would be the kids.

The next time your child or student asks “Why?” Try responding with a question, such as “What do you think? I would like to hear your ideas as to why.”

Families can have fun with questions by designating one night a week during dinner as time to practice question skills.  It’s quite entertaining to carry on full conversations with questions. For example:

Mom: “How was school today?”

Child: “When did you study fractions, Mom?

Mom: How old was I when in the fourth grade?

Dad: “How do you use fractions today?”

Mother: “You know my favorite cookbook, Cooking for Crowds, why do I cut those recipes in thirds?”

Older Sibling: “Speaking of crowds, when is our family reunion this year?”

When you value questions and give thought to them, kids will value them, too. They will feel safer to ask even seemingly silly questions. Encourage questions and you will breathe life into curiosity.

And please, don’t kill any cats!


Sherry Maysonave