by Letty Rising
Follow the Trillium Montessori Talks podcast
I once gave a workshop to a group of parents, and when I talked about how elementary-aged children are knowledge-seekers who are interested in knowing about everything, I saw flickers of joy and delight on their faces as they imagined their children absorbing the totality of what Montessori educators know as Cosmic Education.
However, their smiles transformed into exasperated sighs when I told them that the pathway for them to acquire all of this precious knowledge is through asking lots and lots of questions. One parent raised her hand and said “I just thought my child was being annoying…you mean that this is actually a developmental phase?” Then many parents shared their experiences of feeling weary, unconfident, irritated, and more, from the seemingly endless amount of questions.
After their various sharings, it was clear that the root of their frustrations sprung from the discomfort that arose inside of themselves when they didn’t know the answer. Or, if they didn’t believe that they could adequately explain the answer. After all, when children are 3 or 4, the questions they ask are often pretty easy to answer. Mostly they want to know “what,” and “why.” They want to identify and label objects around them, leading to the development of a rich and varied vocabulary.
However, when they get to the second plane, the questions start to transition away from “what,” and more towards “why,’ and “how.” It’s a lot easier to answer “What is that?” (a dog), or “Why is the dog wagging his tail?” (because it is happy) as opposed to “How does a dog get rabies?” The latter involves information that the adult may or may not have background knowledge for.
Most Montessori educators who have been in a classroom any amount of time, have developed the humility to say “I don’t know the answer to that,” and also the wisdom to say “But I have some ideas on where you can find that information.” It demonstrates both strength and confidence in one’s self to be able to hear a child ask a question that you don’t know the answer to, without becoming frozen with fear of not knowing how to respond.
This strength and confidence develops over time through experience. However, even the most experienced teacher can sometimes be thrown off guard when it comes to responding to children’s queries. Let’s look at a variety of effective ways in which you can respond to children’s questions.
What do you think the answer to that might be?
One of the most effective approaches is to respond to a question…with a question! You want to respond intentionally, coming from a place of genuine curiosity of seeking to understand their thinking process, taking great care to not come across as annoyed, condescending, or judgmental. If a child detects even a sliver of irritation on your part, it is likely that they will shut down, not offer a response, and feel self-conscious for asking in the first place. This can lead to a lack of confidence in asking questions, and eventually, they will lose interest altogether. Listening carefully to their response will inevitably lead to more questions, further dialogue, and some strategies for seeking the answer.
Who else could you ask that might know the answer to your question?
This is a great question to ask for several reasons. First, it helps the children learn to rely on each other rather than relying only on you, and thus viewing their peers as potential sources of information they can tap into. This notion propels your students away from the paradigm where the adult is the all-knowing entity, and into a new paradigm where information can be sought from multiple sources.
Second, the more that children interact with each other, the more strong communal bonds are formed. If you have a classroom where everyone is seeking your attention and not seeking the attention of each other, you will want to take note of that and consider if you are encouraging them to lean on each other for support, help, inspiration, and connection.
And last, connecting the children to each other is a proven strategy for delegating the task of answering questions, thus preserving the mental and emotional energy that you as a teacher are giving each and every day. Answering questions for 25 or so students in your class is exhausting, and bringing the students in as collaborators in this endeavor will keep your energy reserve high for other things. When a child comes to recognize that there are 20+ other people in the room who can answer their questions, the responsibility to answer doesn’t fall solely on you, as the workload is distributed out to others.
I don’t have the time to respond to that right now…can you come back to me in 5 minutes?
There may be times when you are genuinely busy and may need to say this. Or, perhaps you have a particular student who comes up and asks you questions that they can answer themselves and you want to put them off just a bit to see if they become resourceful on their own. When you do tell them to return in 5 minutes, one of 4 things will happen:
- The child learns how to exercise their “patience” muscles as they wait for you to be available.
- They seek out other teachers or peers to help answer their questions.
- They seek out the answer to the question from available resources on their own.
- The question wasn’t important and then they forget about it.
I’m not ready to respond to that yet…I will get back to you…(offer a designated time).
Sometimes you can’t respond to a question that has to do with a decision that lies with you, and you haven’t thought it through enough to be able to respond at the moment. Or, it’s an information-based question and you think you know the answer to their question, but want to check your resources to ensure that you respond to it correctly.
Take the pressure off of yourself! Just because someone asks a question doesn’t mean that you have to respond the moment the question is asked. Letting the child know you aren’t ready, and just as important, WHEN you will get back to them, is important for building trust.
And it might be that you tell them you can’t get back to them until tomorrow after lunch, and maybe you still won’t be ready. You respond at that time saying “I need a little more time to respond to that because of x, y, z. I will get back to you tomorrow.” As long as the communication is clear and solid, questions can be put off for a day or two, until clarity is there.
Take a pause, allow yourself some thinking time before answering.
Sometimes it’s beneficial to pause, look up, say, ‘hmmm…’ and count silently to 10 before responding. Because, during that time, the child might have run up to you with a question only to scamper off immediately after it was asked. When you have a child who asks the same question repeatedly, and you know that they know the answer to the question, then the chances are good that the child is using this strategy as a way to connect with you. Sometimes just smiling at them, taking a pause, and kindly asking “Remember you already asked me that? Do you remember what I said?” will be enough for them to say, “Oh, yeah, that’s right.” and run off to join their friends.
That’s a great question. Let’s find out together!
This is a response that I find unique to the Montessori approach. In a traditional “sage on the stage” type of learning environment, the possibility of a teacher not only saying “I don’t know,” when a question is asked but then taking it a step further by showing interest in a student-initiated topic is not typical.
It takes a sense of humility on the teacher’s part, combined with genuine curiosity and a desire to see the child as a collaborator rather than an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. From this perspective knowledge and information is not a one-way flow, instead of flowing in both directions, with the adult and child being the giver and receiver of the knowledge they come across. It becomes a shared learning experience, which can ultimately lead to greater understanding and increased connection.
Give them just enough information, but not too much.
When responding to your students, it’s often helpful to give them a brief and concise explanation, rather than a lengthy speech containing numerous details about a topic. If the child has further questions after integrating the information, they will come back to you and ask for more. Also, answering their questions with lengthy, complex answers prevents them from taking the kernel of knowledge you shared with them and turning to books or an internet search, or even an expert during a “going out” excursion to find out more.
How NOT to respond
I’ve mentioned numerous ways in which teachers can respond to their student’s array of questions regarding all things contained in our universe. However, there are also some ways in which you won’t want to respond. And this might be tough for some, because it means at the least, hiding your feelings, and at most (and preferably), shifting your mindset to see your students’ endless questions differently. Here are some responses you’ll want to eliminate:
You might find yourself thinking “Here he is, asking me more questions, when I already answered several earlier today, yesterday, or the day before.” Eye rolling can be an unconscious behavior and hard to self-detect. If you work with an assistant, ask her to give you feedback on whether or not you are rolling your eyes at students. While it can be unintentional, the outcome is that children may feel confused, embarrassed, and/or vulnerable.
Resist the inclination to let out a long, loud sigh when the same child comes up to you with questions, or is asking the same question repeatedly. Like eye-rolling, sighing can signal to the child that their wish to engage with you is not being met with enthusiasm, and this can contribute to low feelings of confidence, as well as a future resistance to asking questions for fear of not being well received.
Telling children they ask too many questions (Or asking them “Why do you ask so many questions?”).
This is a sure-fire way to shut a curious child down, which is the opposite of what we want to do.
Telling them to “look it up,” using a condescending tone OR without having given them the proper support on how to do so.
Our words can carry a very different meaning depending upon the tone that is used, and tone is most often shaped by intention. If you respond with “look it up” using a dismissive tone, they will feel that. If you respond using the same words with a tone that implies an invitation, they will feel that, too.
Also, you never want to tell a young elementary child to “look it up,” when they may not yet be reading fluently, or if they haven’t yet learned the research skills needed to find information independently. You will want to give children small group lessons on how to find information in a dictionary, a thesaurus, an atlas, and an encyclopedia. You will want to show them how to conduct an effective internet search.
These skills will increase their independence, and help pave the way towards them answering their own questions without your assistance.
Elementary students ask lots and lots of questions, and this is to be expected, supported, and encouraged. If you can think of the endless questioning as a developmentally appropriate aspect to be honored and even cherished in the second plane child, then your words, your voice, your tone, and your body language will reflect that.
Responding to their questions with interest, curiosity, kindness, and humility will help them strengthen their confidence, and also give them the practice to learn how to ask great questions, which will serve them for years to come.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.