Closed and open questions

Closed and open questions about nature: what is it, and is the one better than the other?

One way of being a co-wonderer to the child is to ask questions in the given situation. Literature about explorative talk often recommends open questions in order to get the child to contribute to the conversation in a way that goes beyond answering control questions. We define open questions as questions with more than one answer, closed questions are thus questions with just one answer, or rather, one answer that is considered correct. Our first thought may be that much of the knowledge about topics in the natural sciences is of a closed nature, — that there is a right and a wrong answer to questions about nature. In many cases that is so, but there are, of course, lots of issues where nobody knows the right answer, and many cases where a correct answer is not what we are looking for. 

The advice to ask open questions is good, but we would like to point out that closed questions can also be useful. Our point is that neither of the two kinds of questions are better or more important than the other, and that you should be able to use both, and answer both kinds of questions, depending on the purpose of the situation and what you consider best for the child in the specific situation. For you as the adult asker, it is important to know when to use the two kinds of questions. 

It is also important to remember that it can be a difficult task for the child to reflect upon or wonder about an issue if the child is very young, and in particular if the object or phenomenon in focus is not present in the situation. Reflecting is more demanding than giving straight answers, there is a need for a developed and nuanced language to be able to reflect. In those cases, the best thing could be to ask a closed question. In other cases, an open-ended question can be the right thing, too, because many children will engage in trying to find answers.

This said, asking an open question related to a joint observation or experience is considered a good way to start an explorative conversation. To ask open questions, it is important to ask for the child’s thoughts, views, or explanations on the present natural topic. Open questions are also called authentic questions, meaning that the person asking the question genuinely asks for somebody’s opinion or view. 

Imagine that you are doing an experiment in a kindergarten in which you are exploring whether a carrot will sink or float with some three-year-olds, and you want to ask a question. If you ask: “What do you think will happen with the carrot when we put it in the water?”, you may well get the answer “It will get wet!”. And that is, of course, a good answer, but probably not what you were thinking of! In this case it might help if you know about the theory of how to ask productive questions