The power of one simple question – “What do you think?”

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In any classroom or group or family, there will be diversity. Some prefer the world to blister along, Others prefer it to take a slower pace. Some prefer to listen. Others prefer to watch. Regardless of the diversity, all students, all children, all learners benefit from time to think. It’s about taking the time to encourage children to explain their thinking.  It’s about them feeling safe to express their thoughts. 

Teachers are often pressed to accomplish a certain number of things each class or each week. Parents too feel a need to get a certain number of things done. You have to ask yourself: “Do I want to help the child learn how to think? Or do I just want them to comply with what I’m telling them to do?” That ‘s the difference. You can push ahead and get things done or you can help the children think.   

A parent reminded me of one phrase I use a lot: “What do you think?” That’s what I say to children, even low verbal children. I ask them to show or say what they think about … how to start an activity, what to do next, how they did something, what a problem might be, how well they did, etc. It’s simple. It’s powerful but it takes time. 

By asking this question, you’re doing a number of things:

  • You’re prompting the child to think
  • You’re showing the child they can think
  • You’re showing you believe the child can think
  • You’re showing you value the child’s thinking
  • You’re showing you value the child
  • You’re helping the child make their learning more solid 
  • You’re helping to enrich the child’s thinking

That’s pretty powerful stuff … just by asking a simple question. 

In the beginning, you’ll need to help children deal with the question. They’re used to people asking ‘test’ questions. Those are questions 

adults ask when they know the answer but want to see if the child does. Kids are usually pretty nervous about answering those questions because they risk being ‘wrong’. Children need to know that whatever they say will be looked at positively. Regardless of what the child says, the adult has to be willing to answer with “That’s a good idea.”, “Hmm, I’m not sure, Can you help me understand?”, “That’s interesting. Should we try it out?” These responses all indicate that the adult values the child’s ideas. The ideas may be way out there but the teacher must respond positively. What’s the harm in trying out a really different idea? I remember I posed a problem about a boy who fell down and scraped his knee. I asked a group of children what we could do. Some suggested getting his mom. Others said we could go to the doctor. One child said we should call for an ambulance helicopter. I dutifully wrote everything on the whiteboard. I acknowledged each idea. After all, they all focused on the injury. The children just needed more help in scaling back their ideas to the size of the injury. With more questions we figured out that it was just a little scrape and probably needed to be cleaned and covered with a bandage.  

What do you do if a child is unwilling or unable to answer your question? Start by narrowing down the options. You can ask the child to show you. You can point to or name a part the might be helpful – “What about this part here? Do you think it might be helpful?” or “Let’s look at your work and then look at the model? Do you think yours looks the same?” You can also comment on how you did an activity and ask if that’s okay. Ask questions that can have a positive outcome, ones that give the child credit for something they did well.

Over time, when the children learn you’re not out to catch them up, they’ll get bolder and more confident in answering “What to you think” questions. 

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

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