Getting Beyond “Yes” and “No”

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If we’re being honest with ourselves, most of us find comfort in thinking that we have some control over our lives.  Being predictable is often perceived as better than being unpredictable, and many people set up their lives so that routine prevails and surprises are minimized.

When we meet somebody new, we often call upon the old standby small-talk questions: What do you do for work?  Where do you live?  Do you like it there?  All of these questions are presumably “safe” to ask in that they won’t bring up any complicated answers; in fact, they’re predictable, routine, and in most cases, pretty boring.

I often wonder if this social conditioning is the reason that many of us apply this kind of questioning when interacting with kids as well.  What’s your favorite color?  Do you like to play sports?  Do you have any pets?  Do you like to read?  While there’s nothing wrong with these questions, they do limit the kinds of answers you’re likely to get.

When interacting with young children, in whatever capacity, it’s common to ask, what color…?, how many…?, what shape is this?, and many other questions that have one-word answers.  These are absolutely necessary, should be asked, and help to develop important skills.  However, most of this type of questioning comes easily to us; it’s comfortable, predictable, and we basically know what to expect.  What’s harder, is training yourself to ask more open-ended questions.

An open-ended question is one that allows for a wide variety of interpretations and answers.  It requires kids to stop and think, put together their ideas, and then express them in a way that someone else can understand.  It’s a complex process that not only helps children develop verbal skills, but also lets them know that what they think is important; that it’s not always about the right answer.  Kids quickly figure out that forming an idea about something is valued, and they begin to do it on their own.

Some examples:

  • What are you noticing?
  • Can you tell me what you’re doing?
  • Can you tell me about your picture?
  • Why do you think that happened?
  • What do you think about…?
  • What can you do about that?
  • What do you think would happen if…?

As a teacher, open-ended questioning can be a little scary.  You go into a lesson trying to steer a group of children towards some kind of goal or specific objective.  When you ask open-ended questions, you have to work much harder to facilitate a meaningful discussion, and you also have to be flexible when things take an unexpected turn.

Outside of the classroom, open-ended questioning can result in some wild, kooky adventures.  There is so much going on inside these little minds that we often miss simply because we don’t know how to ask the right questions.  What you might have thought was a zebra in your child’s picture could be something completely different.  Giving kids the opportunity to verbalize what’s flying around up in their brains is mutually beneficial, and much more fun.

Open-ended questioning can be applied in so many different ways.  If a child is playing with blocks, one might ask, Can you tell me about what you’re building?  Or, if there’s a spill, or some kind of minor accident, asking, What do you think you can do about that?, can quickly turn a moment of panic into empowerment and problem-solving.  These are great for homework too.  When faced with the ever popular, I don’t get it!, responding with, Well, what DO you understand?, can shift the mindset and put the power back in the lap of the child.

The challenge for us grown-ups when asking these types of questions is that we have to check our expectations at the door.  We have to allow ourselves to relinquish control, and get in the passenger seat. When sitting down to join a child in building, for example, asking open-ended questions can be even more engaging than jumping in with your own fun ideas.  While showing a child a new way to build is valuable, asking questions like, “What do you think would happen if we tried…?”, promotes the kind of thinking that we want kids to internalize, while still pushing towards uncharted building territory.  It might not be what you were thinking originally, but that’s ok!  Just breathe, and let go… 🙂

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Some Quick Tips 

  • If a child gives you an answer that doesn’t make sense to you, or doesn’t say much at all, it’s ok to follow up with, “Can you say more about that?” or “Can you say that in another way?”
  • Allowing wait time is very important.  Unlike one-word answers, kids need time to put these thoughts together.  Resist the urge to jump in and “rescue” them!
  • Whenever you can, substitute suggestions with open-ended questions.  Kids can solve their problems much better than they (and sometimes we) think they can.
  • Go easy on yourself.  Asking these types of questions takes practice, so if you get one or two in a day, feel good!

If you have anything to add, or want to share experiences, please do so in the comments!

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6 thoughts on “Getting Beyond “Yes” and “No”

  1. Joseph has gotten to the point where he says: “I hate it when you ask these kinds of questions.” Hm, you don’t like it when I ask these questions? “No, they are too hard…”

    My favorite question that he doesn’t like: “What do you think about that?”

    • Yeah, that seems to be a pretty common problem. I know that kids are hesitant to push back on a teacher, but feel much more comfortable clamming up and becoming resistant at home. I wonder if anybody with similar experiences has found a way to break through.

  2. Wait time is so important. Many of our students have become conditioned to waiting us out when we ask an open-ended question because they know we have 20 other students to get to or a lesson time frame to work within. If they don’t have a response pretty quickly, we are tempted to rush in and supply them with an idea. Many children want to give us the answer they think we want, the “right answer,” and they do not like to risk failure to do that. It does take practice and patience to be a thoughtful questioner and responder.

    • Yes. The old stand-off. There’s nothing like a bunch of crickets sounding in the room while everybody waits. One way I’ve tried to work around that is to have a turn-and-talk so that everybody is at least hearing an idea. If they don’t have their own, they are at least responsible for sharing what their partner is thinking. Sometimes that helps, but not always!

  3. Perhaps the hardest thing to do is “check our expectations at the door”. It takes getting comfortable with the unknown. I have to admit in some situations I am okay with it, but when I am not it is so obvious how MY expectations get in the way of having a rich deeper conversation, whether it is with a child or with an adult.

    • So true. There’s nothing like that self-awareness of, “I’m kind of clobbering this person’s thinking right now and for some reason I can’t pull back.” I have never found this to come easily. I’ve been lucky to have people around me that do it better so I’ve had something to model myself after.

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