These days, I consider it pure joy when my children ask questions, especially questions that stump me. Like when will the pandemic end? Or why do we still have school, even homeschooling the week before Christmas. Or this one that warmed my heart, why do we give presents on Christmas Day? My daughter thinks it’s because the wise men gave baby Jesus presents, silver, gold and oil she thinks. My son wants to know when Christmas will begin so he can start to open the Christmas presents he has received from our family friends. My children’s questions even around things like Christmas or the pandemic reminds me once more, about the significance of questioning in children.

We all know the value of questioning in the classroom, but what about at home. How might we foster the joy of questioning in our households and with everyday activities? How might we encourage questions to naturally arise in our children? Or how might we train our children to ask questions in the way we potty train them? How can we help our children use their questions to seek knowledge, explain things, or understand a phenomenon? How can we simply foster opportunities for our children to ask more beautiful questions, including questions of things they want to know, things they are curious about or what they themselves see as important to discuss, whether it’s Christmas or a pandemic? I was inspired by this keep and the need to continue to work to hone my children’s questioning abilities after seeing a 1995 book in my collection, of 1001 Enuani (an Igbo dialect of Nigeria) proverbs during a cleanup around my home. I scrolled through the pages and landed on proverb 732, my all time favorite proverb in this book and one I have used in a speech to Bucknell undergraduate students about the significance of questions back in my grad school years.

I forgot about this speech until I wrote the prior post on why we all need to keep knowing our why. If you recall for me, my why centers around being a professional questionologist in every sense of the profession. I am inspired by my mentor whose motto in grad school was that we ‘learn to question the questions.’ Also Warren Berger’s book on the need for ‘more beautiful questions.’The primer though for me is proverb 732. It has been my guiding light since grad school and one that I hope to pass down to my children. It simply states: Onye ajuju, aya e-fu uzo: He who asks questions, never misses his way. Keep asking questions my children!

Yesterday, in yet another failed grant attempt, my proposal was described as ‘overly ambitious’. Cambridge’s dictionary describe the word ambitious as ‘having a strong desire to succeed.’ In the grant writing world, the word ambitious has negative connotations. It’s one of those dreaded words senior reviewers lash on junior grant writers to remind us to stay in our place. When all else fails, when even the grant has some merit to it, the reviewers use the word to remind you of the hierarchy inherent in the grant writing world. Bottom line, no one wants their proposal to be described as ambitious. Yet, majority of all my proposals, most of my failed ones, have been called ambitious on so many occasions. In fact I wrote so many ambitious grants that failed before landing on the grant of a life time. Ambitious questions are all I know.

Now and in the words of James, 1: 2-4, I consider it pure joy when my grant proposals are described as ambitious especially in the beginning because I know now that the testing of my abilities produces perseverance, produces a profound commitment to write more beautiful questions, questions that are truly ambitious in nature given pressing global health issues, this pandemic being a perfect example. My goal now is to truly own the word and so I thank reviewers from reminding me to keep being ambitious, keep having a strong desire to succeed. For when I am ambitious, when the work is described in the beginning as having the determination to succeed, the end makes more sense.

Ambitious questions are a necessity. Ambitious scientists are critical. I intend to keep being ambitious so as to finish my goal of research that is truly sustainable in resource limited settings. It will truly take ambitious questions and I am so prepared to keep asking them, no matter how many times I fail.

What if children can ask questions for a purpose? What if they ask questions that allow them to gather information? What if the questions children asked are relevant and necessary for their cognitive development? What if the questions children ask, help them achieve some change in knowledge? These are profound questions. Profound for children’s ability to see, observe, learn and understand the world around them. Profound for children’s ability to gather information. Profound for children’s zeal to solve problems they encounter. Profound for children’s development, cognitively. Profound for children. All children.

Since homeschooling began, the researcher in me has become curious and open to the process of learning, working through each homeschooling session to understand how children achieve what Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana describe as metacognition or the ability to think about one’s own learning. In their book ‘Make Just One Change,’ they highlight why questioning matters for children and why we should all teach children to ask their own questions. To them, all students should learn how to formulate their own questions. The ability to ask questions may be taken for granted by adults. But the profound significance, profound freedom, profound bravery of being able to ask questions is not lost on children.

It’s also a simple request, really, one that respects and values children’s mind. One that also allows children to discover for themselves the power inherent with asking questions. There is an Igbo proverb I grew up with that simply states that ‘he/she who asks questions, never misses their way.’ How might we help children continue to ask questions is a profound keep for me, one that is inspired by learning from my own children, thinking about how I ask questions too as a global health researcher and a grant writer. Think about it, I actually get paid to ask questions, questions about pressing global health issues. It’s starts with questions for me, and even ends with more questions, given my passion to create sustainable interventions in resource limited settings. Questions are all I know. Questions are for everyone, including my children. It’s my keep for today and I am committed to a vision where children ask questions. My only goal now is to turn that vision into a reality, for my children, for all children.

Why is the sky blue? Why are clouds white? Why do clouds even start with the letter C? These are common questions my three year old asks every day. He is not alone. Many kids his age get to the bottom of things by asking questions. Yet by the time kids reach middle school, they stop asking their parents questions. This is according to a Newsweek cover story, ‘The Creativity Crisis,’ published in the 2010. In pre-school however, kids like my 3year old on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. This decline in questioning has ramifications for children’s engagement in school, which tends to fall off the cliff when children move from elementary to high school. I came across these findings in Warren Berger’s book, ‘A more beautiful question.’ In it, he shared how children care much about the answers in their why questions. Still, why does questioning in children stop drastically and why is it not even taught in schools?

Why are clouds white?

As this first cycle of homeschooling comes to an end, I have become torn with the heavy focus on subject matters like math or language or reading, and the limited focus on building skill sets such as inquiry or even questioning. Take questioning for example, my 3 year old inundates me with questions everyday. At first, and like many parents, I was tired of the questions and began to respond with the typical statement ‘because I said so.’

Why are clouds white?

Lately and thanks to books I am reading like Warren Berger’s book below, I realized that his questions are necessary part of life, with kids like him actually being born questioners. My job now is to encourage it, to help him learn or even practice it where necessary. That’s all. Keep building questioning in kids. Keep letting them ask why. It matters, even when you don’t have the answers.

I love to talk. It’s presumably why I easily gravitated to a career in teaching. But ever since I started teaching a course I absolutely love, I have learnt first hand why teaching isn’t about lecturing or talking. It’s about students themselves asking questions of subject matter and me guiding them where possible to come up with the answers themselves. Education experts call this inquiry based learning and I adopted it in my class this fall semester. I looked for pictures, books, materials around the week’s topic, presented it as a prompt or trigger and asked for questions and questions only. Suffice to say, good questioning is a rich and complex intellectual skill, that works to help both the teacher and student elicit worthwhile information that matters. It also depends on teachers working with students in inquiry.

My guide to an inquiry mindset

At first, I was uncomfortable. My students were too. But I learnt quickly that we all had to learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable with questions more than answers, with pushing paradigms, more than finding solutions. I encouraged my students to first think about the questions they had in mind and not the answers. When all questions were asked, together we brainstormed answers where possible. Some answers were easy, some tough, some I knew, some I didn’t. But the growth and perseverance over the course of the semester had been immense. Knowing that it okay not to have all the answers was humbling to me. I came to academia because I wanted to learn first and foremost and I felt I could learn more from my students. Adopting an inquiry mindset has allowed me to learn, even cultivate a natural love for learning in some of the students I interacted with this semester. From the student interested in rural mental health, to the one passionate about maternal child health or gardening for healthy life, the student focused on provider bias or the one implementing narrative therapy for gun violence survivors, the student exploring how family support matters for kids along the autism spectrum, or multilevel determinants influencing their diagnosis to the student passionate about suicide prevention, sustainability, immigrant mental health, young adult mental health and sexual health literacy or stigma with STI testing, it’s almost like as if I knew all of them intimately and adopting an inquiry mindset allowed me to root for their best work individually. That in essence is the hallmark of an inquiry mindset, that students ultimately grow, that they persevere intellectually and continue to explore their passion more deeply even as the semester ends. Every moment was a learning opportunity, to be better. In fact I was intentional about this, letting them know that inquiry may first lead to failure, but even my attempts at failure (which was more work for me) were all learning opportunities to be better, not a shortcomings or failure. Reflecting and revising was intentional and my attempt to achieve growth and looking back to the start of the semester, my little experiment worked.

As the Fall semester comes to an end, I am completely grateful to my students, every single one of them because they made me learn and in so doing, I became more like them, a lifelong learner, a student, passionate about helping my fellow students thrive beyond their wildest dreams, one class material after another. Keep an inquiry mindset as it’s the most authentic and inspiring learning you will ever experience.