Lately, in the piano lessons I teach, I've had a big drive on teaching children to ask questions. It's been surprising how foreign this seems to them but it's such a valuable skill, which doesn't only apply to music lessons, but to life in general.
Each lesson I teach is accompanied by a page of notes, summarising what we've done, any homework, and any message for parents. Each week, I ask my pupils to complete the following sections:
1. What I've enjoyed most this week:
2. Question for my teacher:
3. How hard did I try this week (with 5 options ranging from 'I tried the best I could' to 'I didn't try at all' )
Strangely, the general consensus for children is to write ' --- ' or 'N.A.' or 'No' when asked if they have a question. From what I've seen, they think that asking a question means that they're not good at what they're learning. But isn't this ironic?! Surely the most curious, question-asking people are the ones who learn most in life, in all fields?
I've been telling children that each week, I'd like them to think of a question. I've told them that questions are tool for investigation. People who ask questions are trying to find answers, and people who are trying to find answers, mostly do (though perhaps not always the answers they expected!).
Questions should naturally arise when:
- A pupil gets stuck: they may ask, "Why does this not sound right?" or "Why is bar 4 so difficult?'
- A pupil has a request: "Please can we learn ___"
- A pupil is acknowledging that help is available and that they needn't struggle by themselves: "Please could you help me with___?"
Question-asking is a skill and the more practice people get, the better they become. I've found that when some children start asking questions, they can come across as quite impolite. For example, I have been asked, "How am I supposed to do hands together?" In this case, the child wasn't aware of tone; he just hadn't ever learnt the words to ask. He needed practice at asking-questions.
Sometimes also, children don't know how to time their questions. They something ask something, while I'm in the process of explaining it. This is easily remedied. They just need to learn that good question-asking stems from listening: questions are usually best asked, after someone has explained something.
How often are children's questions ignored or misunderstood? And how often do children deliberately not ask, for fear of being judged or told off?
I do wonder whether in class situations, children are more often putting their hands up to answer, than to ask questions. But I think here, children miss a major opportunity to learn. In a class situation, perhaps a question asked at the wrong time and in the wrong way is not useful, but this is all the more reason to help children understand how to ask questions.
Encouraging a child to ask a question teaches them to take ownership of their learning. For example, they know that they can't say "Why is this piece going wrong?" if they've not really put much effort into learning it. They know this. Even a at a young age, they work this out. Asking a question teaches them to know when something is within their grasp, and when they require a bit more input from elsewhere.
It's a great skill for children to learn about sources of information. Over the years, various students have told me that they 'got stuck' at home, and couldn't learn their pieces. Now, I try to encourage them to hunt out the information, just as they'd hunt out food if they were hungry! If they're stuck, they can ask a parent, sibling, they can even phone me up, or email, they can check books, CDs, the internet... but so many aren't aware that they have this power. Even at a young age, children have a huge capacity to investigate. It's so important we let them do so and teach them appropriate ways to do this.