How to Encourage Discussions About Life's Big Questions

How to Encourage Discussions About Life’s Big Questions

I’m sure your kids come out with some heavy-loaded questions from time to time. So how can we can help children learn and grow by talking about the world around us.

When my niece was three years old, she asked her mum, “Why are the leaves falling off the trees?” Her mother answered, “In autumn the leaves do fall off the trees, but don’t worry, they all grow back in the spring.” My niece beamed. “Good!” she said. “I’ll tell Poppy his hair will grow back in the spring.”

My sister found herself in a predicament. Should she tell her grinning daughter she had over-generalised? What would be more beneficial: teaching her there are sometimes ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, or letting her feel proud of what she believed she knew? Would correcting her encourage or stifle her?

There are no wrong questions

As a teacher, I have grappled with this dilemma. I’ve seen children too timid to raise their hands in class or ask a question for fear of being ‘wrong’. In school, children are encouraged to investigate, challenge, enquire and take risks with their learning. The problem isn’t that there are times when there is only one right answer, but rather how children feel about not finding it.

So how do we, as parents and teachers, encourage children to be less worried about being right, and more actively engaged in learning?

One way is to involve children in discussions about the Big Questions.

Provide a topic for small classroom groups (or around the dinner table at home) with many possible answers or responses. For example, ‘Is it ever okay to tell a lie?’ or ‘Who knows you better – your parents or your friends?’ The only rules are that reasons and examples must be given for any opinion, and that all views are considered respectfully. Phrases such as, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but…’, ‘I agree with you to an extent, but I think…’ and ‘Have you thought about…?’ should be practised and used throughout the discussion. These sessions might start with one question, but go off on a tangent. That’s absolutely fine. The digressions can lead to new and exciting Big Questions.

The benefits of such conversations are enormous. The expectation that children provide evidence for their opinions develops their reasoning skills. They learn that adults don’t have all the answers, and it’s okay to disagree. They feel heard. Participating in open dialogue with others offsets the times they are required to know those right answers. Most importantly, children come to realise their views are of value.

So what are the Big Questions? They can be found in storybooks or novels. They’re embedded in movies, newspapers, school curricula and, above all, in daily life.

Questions for preschool children might include:

  • Why aren’t children allowed to drive cars?
  • If you could have one fairytale character for a friend, who would it be and why?
  • Could an elephant ever fly?
  • Why do millipedes have so many legs?

And for school-age children:

  • Is there anything everyone on earth believes in?
  • Can something be right and wrong at the same time?
  • Can something be fair and unfair at the same time?
  • What do you really own?
  • Is it better to have one best friend or a group of friends?
  • Is there any question for which there is only one right answer?
  • Could you be dreaming right now?

Speak up

There is enormous growth in children involved with these discussions. Children who are ordinarily reluctant to volunteer an opinion begin to speak up; children who find it difficult to listen to others develop the capacity to focus on another person’s ideas and those who have a tendency to scoff at others’ opinions learn how to voice their disagreement in ways that encourage discussion rather than shut it down.

The most memorable moment for me came one year from the students in my Year 6 classroom. Jack* had come to our school partway through the year. He was prickly, defensive and opinionated, and scathing of any view different from his own. During Big Question time, his loud tone greatly discouraged any child from suggesting a different perspective, which could send him into a rage. Bit by bit we encouraged him to listen as much as he talked. One day, after many disrupted classroom discussions, a brave girl said to Jack, “I hear what you’re saying, but have you thought about this…” The class held its collective breath. Jack turned to the girl and said, “You have a point there”. The class broke into applause.

The discussion had centred on the question, ‘What is real?’ The girl who impressed Jack into a respectful recognition of her view had said, “Perhaps the only reality is the search for it”.

One thing is guaranteed.

When children have the chance to offer their views, they have much to teach us all.

Discussions with children about the Big Questions can be rich and enjoyable for adults as well.

*Name has been changed.

 Catherine Howard currently teaches Years 3/4 at ELTHAM College of Education, and has worked with students of all ages in the area of philosophy for children.

Words by Catherine Howard

Guest Contributor