You cannot ask a question if you don’t have the right words

I’m seeing lots of the ‘What’s the point of teaching knowledge, why bother filling their heads up with lots of facts and surely it’s better to be helping children to develop curiosity and ability to ask questions anyway?’ type comments and articles floating about the edu-net at the moment.

To those people, aside from pulling a face, I have one great example that should hopefully highlight how silly it is to think that we should only teach ‘skills’ like ‘questioning’ over and above good-quality knowledge (and the vocab to go with it):

Car showrooms.

‘Slight dent at the front’ ‘I’ll take it!’

This morning, I’m off to look at a Japanese import MPV or two and I’ve already done my homework. Here are some of my questions that I have prepped:

  1. Are there later models on route through the import scheme that include 2.4l engine rather than 3.0 V6?
  2. What is the fuel consumption rate, MPG, roughly speaking?
  3. Do the vehicles have rust-proof treatment administered when they arrive in the UK?
  4. How easy is it to get insurance and is the insurance reasonable/pretty average for an MPV?
  5. What is the torque and can you tow a small caravan, for example?
  6. How long an MOT has it got?
  7. What’s the servicing interval?
  8. How easy is it to get replacement parts?
  9. I see the doors have an electric sliding mechanism, is there a manual override? What happens if there is a fault somewhere in the circuitry – is it easily fixed?
  10. Is there a cup holder?

OK the last one was a silly question.

These questions are all really specific and if I didn’t know about cars in general or Japanese import MPVs, then I wouldn’t be able to ask these really important questions. The odds are that some of those questions aren’t specific enough because even though I have spent some time researching and have quite a bit of general knowledge about automobiles, I am not an expert in Japanese import MPVs. But if I didn’t have the knowledge that I currently have, then I would be on route this morning to looking like an ignorant fool with just one question ready:

  1. Is it good?

As you can imagine, that particular question would make me very vulnerable indeed because it immediately exposes me as someone who cannot think critically about a car purchase (basic I don’t have any knowledge about it), and this is one reason why I advocate teaching children lots of knowledge – to let them go into the world without any subject specific knowledge is actually, in my view, tantamount to child abuse because it leaves them extremely vulnerable to persuasion by those with ulterior motives*.

Further, I have actually found my car knowledge journey to be quite interesting – but I would not be on this journey if I didn’t have those initial questions and the very particular vocabulary that is necessary for asking those questions. How did my car knowledge journey start? I was taught by my driving instructor, friends and family as I was growing up. Of course, I have done lots of reading since – but remember, I’m an adult who is capable of self-motivation, I am not a little child who would struggle to resist the urge to just go out and play instead.

If you are reading this thinking that I am advocating teaching children about cars and the car industry, you are completely wrong. My point is that to not have any knowledge completely inhibits the ability to ask questions or think critically about a particular subject. In the classroom, a child who cannot ask a question in Year 9 about a particular aspect of biology because he has not got the basic knowledge or vocabulary to think of that question, let alone ask it, will end up less curious, not more – how would he ever know about how amazing cell signalling is if he didn’t know enough about cells or even what a cell was?

So, the knowledge must come first if we want children to be able to ask questions and be more curious.

Who’s with me?

*History teaching (or lack, thereof) is a good example of this: many young people today are at risk of voting in regimes that have catastrophically failed in the past – regimes that cause economic disaster and lead to horrific consequences for ordinary people, particularly the poor




6 thoughts on “You cannot ask a question if you don’t have the right words

  1. I concur with you on the importance of knowledge, in particular knowledge retained in long term memory which informs your decisions, your choice of questions about topics (as you say), your ability to analyse and think about situations in life and your ability to comprehend and retain new knowledge. It’s that first level of Bloom’s taxonomy which often gets overlooked but which is critical if you want to move to high order thinking skills.


  2. “I’m seeing lots of the ‘What’s the point of teaching knowledge, why bother filling their heads up with lots of facts ”

    I am not sure where you see this, but it is not apparent to me. I however am in secondary and this may make a big difference. You mention year 9 so I am guessing your point mainly refers to primary to prepare kids for secondary. Every curriculum I have seen in secondary has knowledge at it’s core. As mentioned in education866466’s comment, Bloom’s taxonomy has knowledge at it’s base. Many “knowledge” advocates rubbish Bloom’s taxonomy although it ha knowledge at it’s base as a foundation because it then goes on to talk about understanding, analysis, application, evaluation and creation. All of these are not possible without knowledge.

    As a child, most of the knowledge I gained was not gained from school it was gained from books, TV and talking to other adults and kids. I could glean a small piece of knowledge from some source or the other and then via the above resources I would expand and extend my knowledge. Whether this was about dinosaurs, the universe or the Guinness Book of Records it mattered little. In fact I was much more efficient and effective learning on my own despite the few inconsistencies etc

    If in doubt I would ask an adult or carry out further research. I started to perfect this process early on maybe at 4-5.

    A recent post from a prominent edublogger asked how many teachers had been “taught to give verbal explanations”. Being able to explain is a skill in my view and is not possible without knowledge and understanding. Kids do need some practise in explanation (as an example of skill) early on but once proficient they can improve the process and with additional knowledge they improve further. Of course we all extend our knowledge by looking for additional information on Goggle once we have the skills, you can actually look it up.

    For me the issue of how much time should be spent memorising stuff (for which you don’t actually need a teacher) against the time spent using the knowledge to solve problems and improve understanding. The way that this balance might change between age 5 and age 18 is for me the interesting one.

    I am not in a position to say how the balance is in primary, but from your description the balance is too far towards the development of proficiency in application of knowledge to real life familiar and unfamiliar problems.

    Clearly this is just my take on the issues, but it serves me well across KS3, KS4 and KS5.

    I teach economics and I work on the basis that a learner can become an “expert” in applying knowledge in a topic in a range of situations without being an expert in all. Once an expert, an individual can quite reasonably be expected to extend the knowledge under their own steam.

    So I believe I am with you, but I am not sure you would agree.


  3. It’s for this reason that I loathe KWL grids that are so popular in primary.
    What do I know about the Vikings? Bugger all
    What do I want to learn? How the hell should I know? I’ve no idea of my options.

    It leads to the most banal of curricula and does nothing to stoke the fire of further learning


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