Summer: a great time to explore the world around us and to ask questions! Reposting this because it may inspire parents to take a leaf from Rohit’s book and focus on the nature of questions that our kids ask. Read on….
Rohit is an old and dear friend who, in addition to being a brilliant scientist and doctor, is wonderfully well read in a wide variety of fields and genres, and enjoys a wide range of activities including playing guitar, hiking, and generally shooting the breeze about most things, whether relating to art and culture, politics, science or sports. Over the years, he, his wife, Charu, and I have had many great conversations about kids, science, and learning – amongst other things. They have two wonderful children, ages 7 and 10. In this post and next week’s he shares the story of how he thought about his children’s tendencies when it came to asking good questions, a hallmark of science and innovation, and how he decided to incentivize them in this area to build good habits. The text below came from an email exchange between myself and Rohit. The questions in bold print are mine, other text is Rohit’s.
Like many parents I probably spend more time than I’d like to admit thinking about how to strike the right chords in our kids’ education. My particular line of thinking is influenced by my work which, in my case, happens to be clinical and basic science research. That, combined with the fact that my own upbringing to some extent discouraged open questioning, I think really makes me want to encourage this in our kids. The inspiration for this came from a Seder dinner at a friend’s home where we learned about the Jewish tradition of asking questions about the religion itself. That struck me as something incredibly different from my experience of Hinduism but something I think we should encourage.
In lab and in clinic, I see the importance of this process over and over again, in many ways. There are a lot of questions that can be asked but some are really worth going after. Formulating a good question is a skill – one that I’m not the best at. And we often feel ashamed to ask the simplest, most childish questions which are usually the best ones. It’s trite to quote Einstein but he really did say some of my favorite things on this issue. He said that he asked himself childish questions and then went about answering them. But he also said that it wasn’t that he was so smart but rather that he stayed with questions much longer. And I’ve heard this repeatedly about really successful scientists that I’ve come to know indirectly. This issue – persistence with a question – is something I think we need to work on with our kids. They ask fantastic questions but its hard to get them to follow them up. I’m not sure I have a great answer to that yet…I’ve talked to them about writing their questions down in notebooks but we have yet to move on that. I’d rather not incentivize everything but it would be fun to push the process a little further.
How did you go about your plan to incentivize your kids’ questioning? How did you express it to them?
Initially, this all started when Anisa got a piggy bank for her birthday. After we explained that she can collect her money in it and save up for something of her choice, she naturally asked how she can get money. Charu (Rohit’s wife) and I talked quickly and hadn’t really thought out a policy on allowance. We didn’t love the idea of paying for chores since they should do chores regardless. I had been thinking about the Seder dinner (I think because we had recently seen our friend Andy who invited us to his home) and just blurted out that we’d give her money for questions. Anisa loved the idea and we quickly learned the power of incentivization. She started asking “Why?” or “How?” after everything and expected to be paid. So we had to immediately (within hours) adjust the policy. I refined it by saying the amount of money she gets depends on the quality of the question – simple questions get nickels and dimes but good questions can get much more – a dollar or more. She asked “How do I know its a good question?” I told her “We’ll be the judges but good questions come from carefully observing something and asking a question about what you’re observing.” Those were the initial ground rules that we’ve stuck to for a few years and it was generally pretty successful. After they ask a question now they often follow it up with “Is it a money question?” The tough thing is that our kids get most of what they want from the grandparents anyways, so that decreases monetary incentivization.
I’ve recently tried to adjust this to foster both the questions and their sticking to a line of questioning. I’ve said they have to write down the question to get paid. Ajan is just learning to write so I said he can write a couple of words or draw something that makes him remember the question. My hope is that this will 1) let them ask more questions (since I sometimes only hear them when I’m around) and 2) let them revisit questions. I also said that if they make some effort to find an answer they can get more money. This could be reading something online or thinking of an experiment (since Ajan can’t read much). We’ll see how it goes. I don’t love that this approach ultimately incentivizes learning which I very strongly think should come from within. I just hope that it starts some good habits. And I think we’re seeing this happen. They don’t seem to worry too much about the money as much as if it’s a good question.
Examples of their responses – ones that made you happy and ones that did not earn the money?
As I mentioned, we quickly established that “good questions” or “money questions” were the ones that were based on careful observations or putting facts together. This helped refine how they should ask a question. Instead of simply asking “why?” they started including the observation in the question “why does the drop fall?” But that would still be a nickel question. It’s a good simple question that’s worth a lot of discussion but not as good as one of the first great questions Anisa asked. She must’ve been about 4-5 years old and I was giving her a bath. She normally talks constantly but got noticeably quiet while watching drops of water on the shower wall tiling. Then she asked:
That struck me as wonderful question and we talked about it. I asked her to look at the ones that fell first and see if there was something different about them. I was in a bit of a hurry so I said, “I think the bigger ones fall before the smaller ones. (though I knew this was not the whole answer)” She kept watching the drops even as I was starting to dry her off and then said, “No, you’re wrong. Sometimes a small one falls first even if it’s right next to big fat one. Why does that happen?” So I told this to a friend who was doing his PhD in physics. He loved the story and explained that this phenomena falls into the category of critical phenomena – the same category as earthquakes or avalanches. I went back to Anisa and we talked about all this as much as a 4-5 year old could and concluded by telling her that she asked a super important question that some of the smartest people can’t figure out and are still working on. She loved it and concluded by asking “So how much do I get?” I gave her $5 for that.
Ajan has asked some wonderful questions recently including “How can we breathe in a plane if there is less oxygen up high? How do birds breathe up there? Maybe they have something in their lungs that traps the oxygen?
Recently I brought home some dry ice from lab mostly just to show them the smoke and bubbles. For some reason Ajan loves ice and his immediate response was, “Why does this ice fall to the bottom?” [If I haven’t told you the story about his penis hypothesis, remind me later – hands down the coolest question, hypthesis and experiment I’ve ever heard.] Recently he’s been asking more questions than Anisa which makes Anisa jealous and makes me a little sad and wonder if there’s something about his inability to read that leaves his mind more open to asking questions.
Rohit Sharma is currently an instructor of research at Mass General Hospital and lives in the Boston area. His training has included undergraduate work at MIT (BS Biology), MD/PhD (Biophysics) at University of Texas Southwestern, Internal Medicine residency at Boston Medical Center, and a Fellowship in Clinical Genetics at Harvard University. He enjoys local family trips including hiking, kayaking, and skiing when they get the chance.