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"Why won't you answer me?"

Kids' questions may be annoying -- but they're more crucial to learning than we've ever thought. An expert explains


Thomas Rogers
May 20, 2012 10:00PM (UTC)

Children can ask a lot of very annoying questions. Starting at about 2 years of age, they begin barraging their parents with endless queries, from "Are we there yet?" to "Why is the moon round?" -- questions that often seem more like desperate ploys for parental attention than anything else. And, to make things worse, cooperative parents are often treated to a relentless barrage of follow-up questions, many of which involve one word: "Why?" Is this process infuriating? Yes. But is it crucial to their development? Far more than most of us think. And furthermore, the frequency and form of those questions can tell us a lot, not only about how children learn but also about cultural and class differences in America.

In his new book, "Trusting What You're Told," Paul L. Harris, a Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education at Harvard, argues that much of what we've assumed about our kids' early learning may be misguided. Although many parents and teachers think of children as primarily independent "scientific" learners who best absorb knowledge by physically interacting with the world -- an idea that informs everything from Montessori education to museum planning --  Harris believes it woefully underestimates the importance of dialogue in young kids' lives. Conversation -- and question asking -- allows young children to grasp highly abstract concepts, from religion to history, at an earlier age. However, as Harris points out, the way young children learn can vary surprisingly between working-class and middle-class children, and people from different ethnic backgrounds.

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Salon spoke to Harris over the phone about Montessori's mistakes, Asian-American kids' deference levels, and why working-class kids ask fewer questions.

Why is it so important to determine where young children actually get their information? 

A lot of research on cognitive development has argued that children do best when they're exploring the world for themselves in a scientific fashion. That idea has a long pedigree. If you read someone like Rousseau, that's what he's basically advocating -- along with more recent researchers or educators like Paget or Montessori. Even in the last decade or so there have been a lot of titles within the popular science mode that have focused on the “scientist in the crib” or the “child as a scientist.” But I think it dramatically underestimates children.

Where is this, as you argue, misguided approach to early education reflected?

If you go into a Montessori classroom, which is the archetype of this, the child is given materials to play with -- be they rods or cones or things to assemble -- and the assumption is that the child learns best about numbers and space from interacting with those concrete materials. I'm not quarreling with this as an educational device; I just don't think it's the whole story. You also see this philosophy in progressive science museums for children that pride themselves on being hands-on experiences: The child is not necessarily told very much, and he or she is encouraged to try things out for themselves.

You argue that, rather than allowing children simply to figure things out for themselves, it’s incredibly important that children learn things by interacting with adults from a young age. When does that form of learning start?

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Probably before the child learns how to talk. There was a nice set of experiments where toddlers who were barely able to walk were given a slope to go down. The slope was made a little bit too steep for them to be confident on, and they'd often turn toward a parent of caregiver looking for advice. The evidence showed that if the parent looked anxious and apprehensive, the toddler would probably hesitate to tackle the slope, and if the caregiver looked encouraging and optimistic, the toddler would go ahead and try to negotiate it.

But this process of learning from others really comes into its own when the child is starting to talk, from 18 to 24 months upward. If, for example, the child puts a toy in a box in a room, and the child comes back into the room, and you tell the child that you've moved the toy to a different box, by around two and a half, children are very good at listening to you and will go search in the new place. This is a very early illustration of the way human children realize that the world may not be as they saw it, or as they see it, and that their best bet is to listen and trust other people for guidance.

At a certain point in their childhood, kids start asking lots and lots of inane question where they don’t even seem to be interested in the answer. It can be insanely annoying, and a lot of parents dismiss this as a way to get attention, but you argue that it's actually incredibly important.

It’s true that children ask a lot of questions, but if you look more closely at the kinds of questions they ask, about 70 percent of them are seeking information as opposed to things like, for example, asking permission. And then when you look at those questions, 20 to 25 percent of them go beyond asking for bare facts like "Where are my socks?" Children ask for explanations, like “Why is my brother crying?” If a child spends one hour a day between the ages of 2 and 5 with a caregiver who is talking to them and interacting with them, they will ask 40,000 questions in which they are asking for some kind of explanation. That’s an enormous number of questions.

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And it’s not just attention seeking. When children ask questions and you answer them, that is actually a setting for a sustained dialogue, and they’re trying to get clear in their minds about a particular issue that's confusing to them or bothering them.

One disturbing finding you highlight in the book is that children in less wealthy families are far less likely to ask these kinds of inquisitive questions.

The most critical variable is the education of the mother. The more educated the mother, the greater the richness of the vocabulary and sentences they use with their children, and to some extent the greater the amount of time they talk to their children. One study was done in the U.K. with a group of working-class 4-year-olds and middle-class 4-year-olds, and the middle-class 4-year-olds were more likely to ask questions than the working-class 4-year-olds. This was also true not just of the single one-off questions but more persistent series of questions. That study also showed that children asked many more questions at home than at preschool, so when we send kids to preschool we're giving them opportunities to play with other children and pretend play or whatever, but in terms of one-to-one dialogue where these kinds of sustained explorations can take place, we may be limiting the opportunities.

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Children also seem to trust answers that come from parents more than other people they don’t know as well.

We've done a variety of experiments, and children seem to have a variety of biases that steer them more toward some informants than others. One of the most basic is that they’ll often turn to familiar people rather than strangers. Though by the time the child is 5, if a familiar person starts saying things that from the child's point of view are incorrect or implausible, the child will become less receptive to that person.

There's a surprising finding in the book that Asian-American children are more deferential in their early learning than others. What does that mean?

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There is data comparing American children who are European-American and children from Asian-American families, and to cut a long story short, it looks as if the first-generation Asian-Americans children are more likely to scan the social horizon, more likely to listen to other people. I don't think we should automatically jump to the conclusion that's an intellectually inferior strategy; it's actually an intellectually sophisticated strategy. We don't know exactly what brings this cultural difference about, but our best guess is that it goes back to the dialogue between caregiver and children -- that mothers differ in the extent to which they encourage children to voice their own opinions or record a child's opinion as worthy of attention.

But the willingness to provide and act on what you’re told is not something that's peculiar to any particular culture. Deference has been an important tool for the transmission of culture. Human technology becomes more elaborate, more complicated, from one generation to the next, and deference allows information to be picked up and acted upon. Chimpanzees, for example, deprive themselves of the ability to learn culturally inherited wisdom passed on from generation to generation. If we look at chimpanzee tool use, it tends to be unsophisticated; it doesn't accumulate over generations.

You draw parallels and contrasts between childhood beliefs in  religion, in the sense of the existence of God, and in more scientific things, like germs. What are the conclusions you can draw from that?

This is another illustration of how the traditional portrait of the child as a little scientist doesn't work. A 4- or 5-year-old child isn't in a position to observe germs, but talk to one, and they are pretty convinced they exist. It’s perfectly routine for children to believe in things that they can't observe, and they do that presumably by listening to what other people say and looking at the presuppositions in what people say. This is as much true of germs and oxygen as it is of special beings such as God or Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. From the perspective of the child the primary evidence they have is what other people tell them about these entities.

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The making of that distinction between scientifically established and more religious or supernatural entities is far from straightforward. There's a sense that children are a little bit like psephologists: They look at what people say around them, and they do a head count, and they see that there's nobody who's a skeptic about germs. But on the other hand there are very subtle signs that God has a different status. Then of course when it  comes to Santa Claus and the tooth fairy -- and eventually in the schoolyard -- they're going to meet a skeptic if not several, so their belief in those entities is going to suffer a heavy blow at some point.

What do findings tell us about how children first learn about death and understand it?

They start by understanding that the body has a life cycle, and that people have these internal organs that have to be working for them to live -- and that at a certain point in time the life cycle comes to an end. These internal organs cease to function. The biological account of death implies that once you're dead, that's it. Life has ceased. By contrast the religious conception of death typically carries with it the implication of some sort of afterlife. But it takes them a longer time to start accepting the claims that a particular community will make about the afterlife. The other interesting finding is that it's not as if those two accounts are in competition with one another. So when children subscribe in the end to a Christian notion of the afterlife, it doesn't lead them to abandon the biological conception. Both coexist in the child's mind -- and get recruited in different contexts.

Given your findings, how should we be changing the way we educate and parent our children?

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One thing that it calls attention to is how much children can learn just by talking to people and engaging in dialogue with someone they're familiar with. Even at a fairly young age, children can be guided to think about episodes, places, periods in history which are fairly remote from their own immediate experience. Part of the human experience is the capacity to leave behind the here and now and to think about very different times and times and places. I suppose the other aspect of the book that I didn't dwell on, though it's increasingly on our mind, is the fact that thanks to technology, children’s access to information is now amplified. At an early age children have these spontaneous filters. They're trusting some people more than others; navigating the Internet, which is tricky; and many of them are left to their own devices in figuring out how to do that. It's not as if we have educational programs which encourage children to think more carefully about where they gather information from. What we tend to do is try to guarantee that children's access to certain misleading sources or difficult sources is blocked rather than giving them the tools to make assessments for themselves. In the future we'll have to address that question more systematically than we do and at an earlier age.


Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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