A kindergarten teacher was walking around the room to check each child’s work as they drew pictures. “What are you drawing?” he asked one student.
The girl said, “I’m drawing God.”
The teacher, expecting to hear butterflies and rainbows, was shocked at this deviation from the standard curriculum: “But no one knows what God looks like.”
The girl replied, “They will in a minute.”
This is the typical juxtaposition: The curious and inquisitive child, and the conformist teacher. Our school systems were designed to churn out compliant industrial workers, not to inspire individuals to dream big and challenge the way things are. School taught us obedience and fitting in, so we could properly operate the assembly line in a dingy factory for six days a week.
The Industrial Age is long gone. This is the Information Age, but our school system is lagging far behind. The workers we’re still producing to thrive in the Industrial Age wither in the Information Age.
During a recent speaking engagement, I got a question from a parent on how to undo some of this damage caused by the education system. Specifically, he asked how he could cultivate curiosity and critical thinking in his children. I’m not a parent so, in one sense, I’m underqualified to say anything on this topic. But I’m a professor and, over the past seven years, I’ve learned a few things for encouraging students to think differently.
What follows is a list of seven questions parents typically ask their children. I’ll explain why parents should stop asking these questions and what they should ask instead.
1. “What did you learn today?” vs. “What did you disagree with today?”
The cliche question “What did you learn in school today?” reinforces the traditional conception of education: Put your mouth on the spigot of knowledge. Drink deeply and regurgitate it on demand.
Here’s the thing: A willingness to question knowledge is far more important than the ability to receive and retain it. Important dates in the Civil War and the capitals of the fifty states will all be forgotten soon enough. Once ingrained, however, the ability to challenge the status quo and to question confident claims—whatever their source—will remain.
2. “What did you accomplish this week?” vs. “What did you fail at this week?”
We live in a society that stigmatizes failure. Growing up, failure got us grounded or put us into the principal’s office. As adults, we fear failure to a pathological degree. Behind every canvas unpainted, every goal unattempted, every business unlaunched, every book unwritten, and every song unsung is the looming fear of failure.
Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned award-winning author and law professor. For additional content like this, check out his blog, the Weekly Contrarian.