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Inquiry and the Primary Learner: Questions and Young Children

“I know! I know!” Little voices shrill with excitement and little hands wave frantically. Kindergartners, eager to impress me clamor for my attention. They are ready to answer my question, “What is history?” The winner’s response tells me a lot about the perspective of my audience. “History,” he announces with confidence, “is something that happened a real looooong time ago . . . like in 1989!”

Years ago, radio and television personality Art Linkletter compiled a book entitled Kids Say the Darndest Things! Most docents could write their own books about the funny and insightful things kids say during tours. Looking beyond the humor, however, children’s questions, and their responses to your questions, provide important clues to their developmental levels.

Just as baby humans require easily digestible foods for their immature physical systems, “baby” learners need questions that can be processed by their immature intellectual systems. Understanding the relatively predictable developmental levels of children enables docents to pose questions appropriate, and “digestible,” for every developmental level of their audience.

The kindergartner with the unerring definition of history and the inexact concept of time has reached, along with most pre-schoolers and first graders, what psychologist Jean Piaget called the pre-operational stage. This child is very imitative; many of those raised hands were lifted in response to the other raised hands, not the question. He has a short attention span; call on someone quickly, or your audience may have already forgotten the question!

Children in the preoperational stage are generally ages 4 – 7. They are among the youngest children docents tour. Because children at this level have limited experience, they often maintain a storehouse of misinformation. They ask lots of questions. Sometimes they ask questions to “check” the information they’ve gained through their senses; often they ask questions to attract or hold others” attention. In the latter case, they aren’t too interested in the answers and may continue to ask the same question several times.

Completely ego-centric, this beginning student often volunteers information totally unrelated to the topic discussed, an occurrence sure to discombobulate even the most experienced docent. To the docents carefully composed question about the fire engine on exhibit in front of them, one child may respond with a gruesomely detailed story about how his dog threw up her breakfast on the living r(X)m carpet this morning, making Mommy angry and forcing him to be late for school. This story will be followed by a series of other dog and/or “throw up” stories. Another interesting characteristic of this age, the blurring of fact and fantasy, means that at least one of those stories is about a dog that exists only in its owner’s imagination.

What kinds of questions, then, are most appropriate for these primary learners?

Babies, those in the prior stage of intellectual development, learn about the world by “tasting” it. Everything from their own fingers to the cat’s ear goes into their mouths. Primaries, however, learn by touch. Because many museums, zoos, and botanical gardens must limit this sensory experience, questions that help children at this level look, and really see, are very useful.

Classifying objects in an exhibit by increasingly more complex characteristics (colors, shapes, textures, uses, sizes, and so forth) helps children see details they may overlook without the direction of the decent. Locating all the triangles in an antique quilt, for example, helps learners see beyond the general (the quilt) to the specific (the individual pieces of cloth that the quilt is composed of).

Comparing objects in the museum to objects within their own realm also helps children “see” and moves them conceptually from the concrete to the abstract.

Docent: What does this buggy have that your car has?

Child: A seat.

Docent: Where do you sit when you ride in a car?

Child: In the back.

Docent: Where would you sit if I let you ride in this buggy?

Child: I’d have to sit in Mommy’s lap ’cause there’s no back seat!

Questioning techniques that accept the comments of many children are very successful with this age. Building on the shared experiences of the tour allows even children with very limited prior experience to participate. “What did you like best?” not only gives every child a chance to receive your attention, but gives you the chance to remind them of the name of “that red thing we saw first.” Redirection, or directing the same question to several different children without repeating or rephrasing the question, breaks the usual question-response-question-response cycle. It also serves to increase the participation of all children. A deliberate questioning pace of 3-5 seconds between question and answer also gives more children time to think of an answer.

Divergent questions, those that encourage a wide variety of perspectives, usually elicit wonderfully varied responses from primaries. Children in this stage may not “know,” but that won’t stop them from offering their opinions. Following a visit to the museum’s Christmas-bedecked Victorian parlor, I once asked a group of first graders how Santa Claus got back up chimneys. The more “literate” explained the “finger aside of his nose” theory, but one analytical young man carefully demonstrated the technique he had learned in physical education – you simply press feet and hands in opposition against the sides of the chimney and climb!

The phrasing of questions is also important. Children at this level of development are just learning what a question is … so don’t confuse them further by turning a statement into a question. “This large piece of furniture is a what?” leaves children at this stage bewildered. Order, too, is important. Ask the question, then call on a child. If you call a child’s name first, the panic you initiate may block his hearing the question.

Children in the preoperational stage not only are in the beginning of their intellectual development, they are also small and vulnerable. Questions that give them power are very effective. Power comes from knowing. (That is one reason children of this age delight in memorizing the multisyllabic names of dinosaurs or video monsters!) Providing information to the teacher prior to a tour – and following up on that information during the tour – gives children the opportunity to “show off their knowledge. (This also may prevent “showing off in less acceptable ways.)

Knowing what children are like as learners ╤ understanding what to expect from their level of intellectual development – can help docents create the experiences and questions that make “going to the museum, zoo, or garden” a favorite activity of primary school children and a lifetime choice for these future adults.

Jackie Littleton is the Associate Editor of this newsletter and a sixth grade teacher at Clarksville Academy, in Clarksville, Tennessee. A member of Delta Kappa Gamma and Phi Delta Kappa, she serves as Vice President in charge of programs for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in the State of Tennessee, and is President of the Children ‘s International Education Center.

Littleton, Jackie. “Inquiry and the Primary Learner: Questions and Young Children,” The Docent Educator 1.3 (Spring 1992): 4-5.

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