CHARTING COURSE: ask the right questions

When our children are in their first years of school, we have conversations with them that sound a bit like this:

ParentWhat did you learn today, Junior?

Junior: I found out the order of the planets! Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars…

Parent: Awesome! Want to check out the stars with me tonight?

Sometime between these first exciting years and when our children reach the middle of secondary school, our questioning changes. Perhaps we’re intimidated by the topics they’re learning and we don't know how to help, or perhaps our children’s interests have broadened and they share less. Whatever the reason, by the time they reach their teenage years, our conversations can evolve into something like this: 

ParentWhat did you get for the last assignment you handed in? And have you handed in this week’s assignment?

JuniorYesss, Muuum [or Daaad]! I did okay, I guess.

ParentWhat mark did you get?

We can see that they’re not engaged. We're less engaged! We know that they no longer love learning like they once did. We wish it was different and lament 'lost' potential!

Believe me, our students are frustrated too. I’ve had some pretty distraught students in my office over the years. Some of the most distressed ones have been teenagers who believe that their parents are only interested in their marks. They feel that their report card defines them. 

A simple fix is to get into conversations about the learning too, not only the outcome. 

We all have the best intentions for our children, and most of us simply don’t realise that by asking about results, not learning, we're putting our children under a whole lot of pressure and perhaps even turning them off learning. In doing so, we inadvertently contribute to a fixed mindset and a negative approach to learning, a topic we’ve talked about a lot in the past.

Students with fixed mindsets pull back from their goals and only do what they know they can achieve. Failing becomes so painful that they’d rather not experience it at all rather than accept it as a natural part of the learning process. Low achievers would rather not try (and therefore fail through neglect), than risk trying and the possibility of failing anyway. High achievers avoid pushing themselves too hard because they don’t want to get anything wrong.

At BAC, it is our role as teachers and education specialists to work towards a growth mindset in our classrooms, to offer interesting lessons and subjects that ignite and reignite students’ fascination with new ideas, and to provide the opportunity and space to hone emerging skills. 

But we need your help. If you want to help your child to develop a growth mindset, be engaged, be inquisitive, then reframe what you ask when you're in the car on the way home from school or sitting down to a leisurely catch up on the weekend. Ask them about what they're learning!

Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Ask open-ended questions to keep the conversation going, not questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. For example: ‘What did you learn in [subject] today that was new?’ And then: 'What do you love about that subject?' Also: 'What don't you like?' By being inquisitive, staying interested and engaged in the details of their learning, you might find yourself talking about topics you never imagined you could! You don't need to know all the answers. Just be inquisitive.
  2. Often kids are not very specific, so once you get an idea of what they’re learning, dig deeper. You might start off with: 'You really enjoyed your English novel last semester, didn't you? What's this one about? Then: 'Tell me about the villain?' Or: 'Who do you relate to most out of all the characters?' Warning: This might even inspire you to read the book! It could make for some great conversations and opportunities for connection, and you might even spark off a thought process that your child can use in their next essay. 
  3. Starting with a factual question is a great way to ease into conversation. Try asking something like this: ‘What software program are they using in Graphics these days?' Then: 'What's it like to use?' And: 'Do you ever work on a drawing board?'
  4. Asking positive questions like those above also gives your child a chance to express concerns about their learning. Not only can you enjoy talking about the exciting new developments and their successes, you can also talk constructively about how they might solve problems as they arise. 

Even if it’s hard to get a good conversation going the first few days, don’t give up. Persist. You child’s responses will vary from day to day, but over time you will find that your child begins to engage more, maybe even start conversations with you! When students are interested in what they are learning rather than simply the marks they receive, achievement takes care of itself. 

AUTHOR: Principal Leanne Entermann writes a series of articles called 'Charting Course' in which she talks about topics important to the future direction of our College.