It’s time for learning

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

Children are born curious:

The number of questions a toddler can ask can seem infinite — it is one of the critical methods humans adopt to learn. In 2007, researchers logging questions asked by children aged 14 months to five years found they asked an average of 107 questions an hour. One child was asking three questions a minute at his peak.

But research from Susan Engel, author of The Hungry Mind and a leading international authority on curiosity in children, finds questioning drops like a stone once children start school. When her team logged classroom questions, she found the youngest children in an American suburban elementary school asked between two and five questions in a two-hour period. Even worse, as they got older the children gave up asking altogether. There were two-hour stretches in fifth grade (year 6) where 10 and 11-year-olds failed to ask their teacher a single question.

In one lesson she observed, a ninth grader raised her hand to ask if there were any places in the world where no one made art. The teacher stopped her mid-sentence with, “Zoe, no questions now, please; it’s time for learning.”

The latest research suggests we should be encouraging questions, because curious children do better:

Researchers from the University of Michigan CS Mott Children’s Hospital and the Center for Human Growth and Development investigated curiosity in 6,200 children, part of the US Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

I’m not sure the causality runs that way.


  1. Graham says:

    Well, as a lifelong questioner, all around curious in every sense of the word good or bad, procrastinator and mild OCD/ADD case, I both remember some of my early struggles with the classroom environment, and sympathize with the need to and benefits of introducing kids to a degree of structured, focussed process for learning as for other activities.

    But that teacher sounds like years of being a teachers’ union member and years of batty kids has worn him [more likely her] down. I sympathize- it’s probably hard to expect every such question to be given it’s due. In this case, even a brief remark about how we have not found such people [I think] and that making art has been considered by some scholars to be a human universal, would suffice. But imagine having to do that all day especially if you are obliged to be teaching something else.

    Still, there’s other things to consider. School in my day seemed to make a lot of room for both worlds. My teachers probably answered a lot of questions from me, not all germane. And yet I also learned to make the questions more germane and hold the unrelated ones for later. And my teachers were mostly pretty enthusiastic about their job. And we had libraries, and I could read about my enthusiasms [world war history, ships, planes, and so on, mostly] as a kid and work them into projects and such.

    I don’t know that it worked for everyone I was in school with, but it certainly provided what I needed.

  2. Harper's Notes says:

    Vocally activated search engines for toddlers with advanced speech recognition adaptive algorithms, a specialty niche business idea?

  3. Roy in Nipomo says:

    I can remember (a very long time ago) when students would “game” an inexperienced teacher by flooding her with questions. Each time she answered, new questions would be generated based on what she had just said. Fun for us, hell for her (and caused her teaching plans to go into the trash until she learned to cope).

  4. Kirk says:

    There exists inside the military, at the lower levels, a form of “white mutiny” which is expressed by asking as many questions as possible, in order to delay the process of daily operations.

    This was a thing that came in mostly with the late 1980s, and the large number of high-scoring recruits the college money brought in. The ranks were filled with them, and they delighted in verbally capering around their less-articulate peers and leaders. In the early phases, this behavior was typically nipped in the bud by the simple expedient of catching the eye of one of your more practical types in the ranks, and they would take action which you would studiously ignore.

    Of course, later on, attrition winnowed the ranks of those practical sorts, and you had nothing but the intelligentsia in the ranks. This was also about the time in my career where I was transitioning over to the career side of the NCO corps, serving as squad leader and platoon sergeant where necessary. What I found I had to do was implement the policies of one of my peers, and ration my people to one each silly or stupid question per work day, five total per week. Severe test of my patience would get that reduced to the point where a few less-than-useful souls were banned from asking any questions at all.

    Lest you think this insensitive and arrogant, I should like to share with you the nature of some of these questions: “Sergeant K, do we need to take these with us…?”, referring to the stack of rations I’d just handed out, at the end of an oral Operations Order detailing the exercise we were about to undertake, wherein I had clearly laid out our food was a.) the wonderful MREs that I would be handing out at the end of the order, and b.) that each soldier would be responsible for carrying their own rations for three days, nine meals total.

    I remember the slack-jawed amazement that question got from the rest of the squad, myself, and the platoon leader who’d been standing by, observing me issue my oral order to the troops. The knucklehead asking the question had a GT score of 95, one point ahead of mine, and developed a certain reputation in later times for doing some truly stupid things that only someone as “smart” as he could come up with.

    So, yeah… Ration your stupid questions out. They only get one a day, or your hair is going to be torn out by the roots.

    I have to acknowledge that an awful lot of my prejudice against the “intelligentsia” comes right out of that era of my life, and the experiences I had with those sorts. When I went on active duty, I walked into the company orderly room, and the Operations NCO was certain that I was either mistaken or lying about my test scores. When verified, I became something of a mini-celebrity, because every one of the platoon sergeants wanted the “smart kid”, an experience I found bewildering. Later found out that the “smart kids” were in demand to do the admin work, and I wish I’d never admitted to knowing how to type. Or, later, knew how to work a computer.

    By the time that the majority of recruits were all the “smart kid” types, the cannier among us were fighting over the “normies”, the guys who were middle of the pack–Those guys made for far less trouble in the ranks. A “smart kid” who engaged, and wanted to actually be a soldier? Incredible asset to have. Those were typically only about 10% of the breed. The rest were restless, bored, immature, and generally lousy soldiers unless something caught their interest.

    We made a huge mistake by emphasizing college money, because that set the stage in many of their minds for the entirely wrong attitude. The Army went to them, cap in hand, and begged them to join, in essence, and that initial experience and mindset left many of that ilk thinking they were doing the institution a favor by deigning to participate in our rude little world. The Army was not a better place for that having happened, but I can only blame the same sort of idiots in the officer’s corps who thought along those lines themselves.

  5. roy in nipomo says:

    Kirk, you were still probably better off than those of us who served with “McNamara’s 100,000″. Many were nice enough guys, but you had to explain (frequently) in extreme detail what they were expected to do, and even then keep close watch on them to make sure they did it correctly. They weren’t intentionally screwing up, they just didn’t understand why some things had to happen in a particular order and/or a particular way. At least the Navy (mostly) got those who kind of, maybe, wanted to be there.

  6. Kirk says:

    I think there were two sorts of “McNamara’s 100,000″. One was the type you discuss, and the other were the ones who were perfectly intelligent, but who didn’t test well–Dyslexia has always been with us, but back then, nobody recognized the real cause of the issue.

    I have a charitable view towards some of the McNamara accessions–Some of those guys deserved a shot at things, but they did a really poor job of breaking out the truly capable from the mentally unfit for service.

    In my personal opinion, so long as you have a few “smart guys” around, the military is way better off filling the ranks with the “willing and (somewhat…) able”, as opposed to the “unwilling and able”. Attitude is a key and essential thing to it all, and if the serviceman has a lousy attitude, I don’t care how smart he is, or even, how fit. Give that man who wants to be there, wants to serve, and who I can turn my back on without having to constantly check up on and ride herd on their activities.

    A few of those “smart guys” did way more damage to the military than they benefited the mission, and I had to clean up after an awful lot of them, over the years.

    It ain’t always about the brains or the brawn. Sometimes, it’s just down to the desire and willingness to serve.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    I stopped asking questions when I realized most of what people were telling me wasn’t true.

    Better to dig up your own answers. Keep your curiosity to yourself and your eyes wide open.

  8. Kirk says:

    One of the useful things about asking questions, however, is when you’re trying to diplomatically point out that a boss or peer is about to do something abysmally stupid.

    It’s not Socratic learning, but there really ought to be a term for this, where you’re trying to help someone achieve awareness of their own foolishness by letting them work it out for themselves and then recognize it in all of its glory. As a teaching mechanism, it is peerless; as a tool for effectuating actual change in an organization filled with ossified deadwood, it is invaluable. Not to mention far more effective than losing your shit, screaming out how stupid they are, and walking off swearing.

    I wish I had the skill at this one of my favorite staff officers had. This guy would sit in a meeting while seven idiots hashed out seventeen dumb ideas over the course of a day, and then he’d blow the whole thing up with one well-placed, extremely pithy question that would swerve the entire cluster-fuck over onto a path far more likely to succeed. And, when he was done, they’d all think they’d done the whole thing themselves. Dude never got much past Major, but I credit him with saving multiple operations from inevitable failure and disarray. He had one commander that recognized his value, but that wasn’t enough to save his career. He was like this Zen Diogenes, always sitting there quietly with his notebook and pen, just listening like some organizational psychiatrist who’d now and again let out some highly observant comment that would shake the foundations.

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