Thursday, 7 May 2009

Questions, questions

I find myself in agreement with Sir Jim Rose's proposal for more emphasis on speaking and listening in primary education. But I think we would do well to think around this, and consider what we can do about it in the early years.

 When we consider speaking and listening, it is usual to assume that it will be the children doing all the listening. I think this is where it is easy to miss an important point. Whilst as practitioners we may be good at hearing children when they have something urgent to say, and be good at listening to their responses to our questions, I wonder just how much extended listening we do when we are with children?

 I know I find it very difficult. Recently I tried to monitor myself for half an hour in nursery, and I constantly had to bite my tongue to prevent myself asking questions. I wanted children to have my attention but also a period of enough silence long enough to let them think and, when ready, talk. And when they did speak to me, I had to make an effort to stop myself from offering them bits of knowledge or giving them answers to the exclusion of having a proper conversation about whatever it was that they found interesting.

It is easy for adults to set up tests for children disguised as conversation. So a small group is asked “what colour is this?” and the adult waits for the correct response before moving on. Children get cross-examined on books as if they were witnesses in court: what is the caterpillar going to eat, what colour is it, what do you think is going to happen next? As an alternative, I would suggest just for a short time we would all benefit from trying to be aware of how often we wait first before speaking, how often we respond conversationally rather than educationally to the children.

In my everyday life, I do not ask a lot of questions. When I do, there is usually a definite purpose, like finding out what platform I need for a train. I have never held up my ticket and asked the inspector what colour it is.  Yet I wonder what proportion of the questions I put to children every week are asked because I need some information from them, or am really interested in what they think?