Techniques for facilitating children’s learning in art museums: Questioning

This is the third post in a series on techniques for facilitating children’s learning with and through art in museums. The first introduced the broader ideas and debates underpinning facilitated learning, the second explored ‘suggesting’ as a method for presenting children with options for different learning trajectories. Each post will include a description of a technique in addition to how and when it may be useful. These should not be seen as all-conclusive methods of teaching and learning but more as different options to experiment with. I see these posts as thinking snapshots and hope they might generate deeper consideration around how others understand and implement methods in their context.

Wittgenstein in New York 1964 by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi 1924-2005
Eduardo Paolozzi, Wittgenstein in New York (1964). Screenprint on paper. 763 x 538 mm.Tate collection

Questioning

“Asking questions to children provides them with an opportunity to think and use language in a functional manner by allowing them to report observations, describe experiences and make predictions.” Ramsey & Fowler (2004)

“Our vision is a world where people think for themselves and can confidently ask questions, answer questions and understand the world around them.” The Exploratorium 

Questions are asked to find our more information or reconsider something from a new perspective. An educator may ask a child a question for various reasons including directing attention to a particular issue, stimulating curiosity, helping to pinpoint an individual’s level of understanding or encouraging deeper thinking (MacNaughton & Williams, 2009). Questioning can also be used to challenge assumptions, investigate a problem or prompt metacognitive learning processes.

Questions can be closed or open. Closed questions can be useful if a simple recollection of information is needed to assess where an individual’s current level of understanding or interest is at. However, these can also be limited in relation to pushing a learner to think past what they already know. Alternatively, open questions may encourage children to question assumptions and deepen understandings.

Open-ended questioning can also be used to move learners between different types of literal, analytical and conceptual thinking, allowing learning to complexify. This process can be referred to as Socratic questioning (Richard & Linda, 2007). Fisher (2007: 623-624) outlines these stages as:

1. Literal questions that ask for factual information such as:

  • What is this about?
  • What happened?
  • What did you have to do?

2. Analytical questions that encourage critical thinking such as:

  • What question(s) do you have?
  • What reasons can you give?
  • What are the problems/solutions here?

3. Conceptual questions that encourage abstract thinking such as:

  • What is the key concept (strategy or rule) here?
  • What does it mean?
  • What criteria are we using to judge this or test if it is true?
  • How might we further investigate this concept, strategy or hypothesis?

Combined together, these questions may encourage increasingly divergent and critical thinking over time. Below is an example of a conversation between an educator and a group of six year olds driven by Socratic questioning (Ibid: 624):

Teacher: Why did the mother think that her baby was best?
Child: Because it was beautiful. She thought it was beautiful.
Child: She thought it was beautiful because she was the mother.

Teacher: What does it mean to be beautiful?
Child: It means someone thinks you are lovely.
Child: You are perfect …
Child: Good to look at.

Teacher: Can you be beautiful even if no one thinks you are lovely?
Child: No. You can’t be beautiful if no one thinks you are beautiful.
Child: You can be beautiful inside, you can feel beautiful …

This conversation illustrates possible lines of enquiry driven by questions that continuously respond to the children’s evolving thought processes. The extract demonstrates how the basic principles of ‘what beauty is’ was interrogated through the cumulative questions asked by the educator. Each question extends children’s thinking as opposed to asking new questions that are separate from their responses (Fisher, 2005). Socratic questioning is one approach that can be use to make learning more complex, contextualised and personally relevant. This could be a useful strategy to experiment with when talking to a group of children in an art museum or developing a paper resource around artworks, artistic processes and art concepts.

Questioning can also be used to increase children’s aesthetic awareness of artworks (MacNaughton & Williams 2009). Take as an example, Janet Cardiff’s artwork Forty Part Motet (2001), a sound installation featuring the choral composition of the Renaissance English composer Thomas Talli. To encourage aesthetic awareness, an educator may ask: Where have you heard music like this before? What else does the music sound like? How could we make music like this? Why do you think the artist chose to make the room dark? Why do you think it was important for the speakers to be placed in a circle?

Janet Cardiff Forty Part Motet (2001). Video from Tate website (2017).

Questioning around this particular artwork could be further contextualised within a child’s experience through an educator describing their experience of the artwork as a starting point for group enquiry. For example:

“When I was walking around the space, I tried standing in front of each speaker so that I could listen to the different voices coming out of each one. When I did this, I could feel the sound moving physically in my body and as this happened, it felt like I was also experiencing different singer’s emotions inside of me. Did anyone else notice these feelings? How would you describe them? Did the singer’s emotions all feel the same or did they change throughout the song? How did the different voices sound and feel different from one another? “

I would love to hear your insights on questioning as a technique for facilitating children’s learning with and through art in museums. The next post will feature the method of ‘demonstrating’ as a teaching and learning strategy.

References 

Fisher, R. (2005). Teaching children to think. Second edition, Cheltenham, Nelson Thornes.

Fisher, R. (2007). Dialogic teaching: developing thinking and metacognition through philosophical discussion. Early Child Development and Care. 177 (6/7), p.615-663.

MacNaughton, G & Williams, G (2009). Teaching young children: Choices in theory and practice. Second edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Ramsey, J & Fowler, M (2004). “What do you notice? Using posters containing questions and general instructions to guide preschoolers’ science and mathematics learning’, Early Childhood Development and Care, 174(1), p.31-45.

Richard, P & Linda, A (2007). Critical thinking: The art of Socratic Questioning. Journal of Developmental Education. 31(1), p. 36-37.

Tate website (2017). Tateshots: Janet Cardiff viewed July 16, 2017 at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/videos/tateshots/janet-cardiff

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