By: Elaine Hou, Instructional Guide

When you think back to your first years in the world, what kinds of questions did you ask? Were they narrow questions with one set answer, or big questions with endless possibilities? Children at a young age naturally bring a big curiosity about the world around them and inside them. They don’t usually ask “What color is the sky?” but rather, “Why is the sky blue?” They first ask, “How did we get here?”, only to later let the fear of not having an answer make their questions smaller. “How did we get here?” becomes “It is because it must be so. How do I replicate what I’ve been told must be so?” 

Now think about the types of questions you asked and encountered in your experiences, especially in the subject of mathematics. Was your math story characterized mostly by broad questions such as “Why do we have numbers?” and “What is addition?”, or by narrow questions such as “What number is this?” and “What is 3+2?” The type of questions we ask ourselves as learners shapes the types of questions we ask our children. The power of asking bigger questions determines the richness of the worlds that we help them discover around and within them.
There is a lovely children’s book titled “Toby Shoots for Infinity,” that takes us to the heart of questioning in math and in life. In the story, Toby, a young boy brimming with curiosity, ventures on a journey to discover what is at the end of infinity. Toby’s father, aptly named Professor Copernicus, tells him that infinity is a kind of magic number in mathematics, used by engineers to build dams, make cake pans, and send rocket ships into space. While Toby is confused that an idea in mathematics could be used to create actual things, he is equally determined to find out just what infinity is. He sets out with a group of close friends, vigilantly named “The Conquerors of Infinity,” to pave a way to the end of infinity using numbers. They take turns passing the baton of counting higher and higher, until they get tired and come to a realization that “infinity is too big to fit in our heads.” Toby then has a mini-existentialist crisis at the age of 8 when he makes the following lament: “Yesterday, I learned that there was no fence at the end of the time. Today, I learned that there was no answer at the end of my questions.”

At one time in our learning journeys, we had a small Toby inside of us, not afraid to ask big questions. If we were lucky enough, we had someone in our lives, whether it was a teacher or family member, who saw the spark in our questions and celebrated the asking itself more than correct answering. Unfortunately, many of our learning stories, especially the way we learned math in schools, involved a series of rote tasks that had pre-determined answers rather than an exploration of the history and beauty of the subject itself. Our textbooks were our teachers’ teaching bibles, dimming the bright world of mathematics, science, literature, history, and even the arts to only a shadow of what it could be with endless practice problem drills and basic recall questions. When the Tobys inside of us tried to ask why and how, our first timid steps into infinite possibilities were stopped and redirected toward memorizing formulas, procedures, and right vs. wrong answers.

With our own Tobys never fully cultivated, it is easy to become the same replicators of a soul-less learning story for our own students and children. And rather than traveling toward an infinity of possibilities and new discoveries, we find ourselves in a sad cycle of hating a certain subject because we never got the “right answers,” or loving that subject only because we never took risks and experienced failure that could actually lead to deeper learning. To limit ourselves to these two dichotomies prevents us from really understanding what learning actually is and could be. In fact, true learning means being equipped to find our own answers to the larger questions of the 21st century.

How do we break this cycle as educators and parents? We start with our own learning again, whether it’s developing our own math capacities or re-discovering a familiar work of art using a new perspective. In the grown-up season of our lives, we begin to think like young children again and find the Toby within us. We learn to ask bigger questions again. Where did the concept of infinity come from? What mathematical patterns can we see in nature? How do formulas describe the beauty and order of the world around us?

At the end of the story, Toby’s mom brings hope back into his math story. While she does not have an iconic name like Professor Copernicus, she does work as a nurse in an emergency ward where “people arrive in bits and pieces.” Toby’s mom nurses Toby’s fragmented state of mind back to health by reminding him that his questions are the beginning of a beautiful journey. While the world with its infinite possibilities is both scary and exciting, Toby’s mom comforts him with the idea that the moon is really just one big nightlight. As we help our children search for the answers to bigger questions, we bring light to a much bigger world they can be active participants in, and help them pave their own ways to understanding.

We each have a Toby, a Professor Copernicus, and a Life Nurse in all of us. As parents, educators, and learners, let’s ponder this simple yet wise dialogue as we embark on learning journeys with our own children:

Toby: “Dad, I’m tired of living in a world where no one knows anything.”
Dad: “If we knew everything, the world would be boring.”

Here is a list of beautiful children’s books that inspire rich questioning. Please feel free to suggest others!

  • Small Stories that Inspire Big Questions
  • Toby Shoots for Infinity by Jean Lemieux
  • The Three Questions by John Muth 
  • The Curious Child by Donyell Floyd
  • Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox
  • The Kids’ Book of Questions by Gregory Stock
  • Not a Box by Antoinette Portis