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Early Childhood Today

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What Makes a Good Question?

"What day is today?" 'What color is this?" "How many do you see?" Convergent questions like these have one right answer, leaving little room for creative thinking, a variety of ideas, or differences of opinion. Consistently faced with questions that require a specific answer, children learn quickly: Rather than risk being wrong, I won't answer at all.

On the other hand, divergent questions, such as those that begin "What would happen if ..." "What do you think of ...?" "Did you ever wonder ...?" "What should we try...?" and "How many ways could you ...?" invite children to experiment with ideas. Open-ended questions like these have many possible answers, so children are more likely to take "risks" in their thinking without fear of being wrong. Divergent questions also enhance language skills because they call for responses in phrases and sentences rather than one- or two-word answers.

Here are tips to keep in mind when you formulate and ask questions:

  • Ask yourself the question first. Does your question require a specific, right answer, or does it encourage a multitude
  • Ask yourself the question first. Does your question require a specific, right answer, or does it encourage a multitude of responses?
  • Ask children for their Ideas. When children ask, 'Why does a cat purr?" or 'Why does it get dark at night?" respond by asking them what they think. Some children may reply with the old shoulder shrug or "I don't know," but if you make it clear that you're wondering too, you free children to experiment with many different and fluent ideas. Encourage creative thinking and, later, research the answers together.
  • Incorporate divergent questions to involve children In problem solving throughout the day. Some questions encourage children to brainstorm possibilities: "What are all the ways we can use the wrapping paper Dina's mom brought in?" Other questions help children figure out possible solutions: "I found this puzzle piece on the floor. How can we find out where it belongs?"
  • Accept everyone's answers equally. This can't be stressed enough, Although one child's response may excite you more than others, its important for children to see and feel that their ideas are not being judged.
  • Encourage children to elaborate. Children may need your help to keep open ended conversations going. If they seem stuck, try posing divergent questions based on previous comments. For example, you might ask, "What else can you tell me about ...?" or "What do you think will happen next?" Help children learn to respond to one another, and encourage them to ask their own questions.
  • Validate children's ideas. When you record children's thoughts on experience charts, post these charts in your room, and refer back to them, you encourage children to continue thinking, expressing, and trying out their ideas.

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