Questions are building blocks of communication


One Saturday morning, my 10-year old son and I went to a science fair workshop. A handful of dedicated elementary students showed up for this optional workshop, a warm-up event to help students think like scientists and engineers. It was a fun and eye-opening experience.

The very first activity was about communicating clearly and effectively. Each student had a partner. They sat across from each other, with two manila folder blockers between them. One student was the “engineer” who created something from blocks of different sizes and colors. It didn’t have to be something real or functional. The engineer’s job was to give directions to the “builder”, who had a set of identical blocks.

The challenge: the builder couldn’t ask any questions at all and couldn’t see what the engineer had designed.

The engineers struggled to explain which blocks to use and where to put them. Starting with the block color and number of “bumps” (studs) was relatively easy, but engineers looked frustrated as they tried to explain where to put the blocks, giving directions like “on top” or “at the back” or “in the middle.” They wondered whether the builders were following their directions.

After picking up the needed block, the builders looked confused because they couldn’t confirm the directions, or even make hand-motions. There was no model or blueprint; they had to rely solely on verbal communication. They wondered whether they were building the correct structure.

It really emphasized how important communication is to learning. We need to confirm what we learn and clarify what we don’t know. We need to ask questions without worrying about what other people might think about us. And we need to encourage others to ask questions of us, to make sure that we understand each other.

Communication is important in everyday life too. We need to communicate clearly, to share our ideas and opinions, and lessen the chances of being misunderstood. We need to listen carefully to what people are saying – and not saying.

What were the results of the building activity? None of the builders could duplicate what their partner engineer created.

At school, at work, and at home, do you feel comfortable asking questions? If you have tried this activity before, were you able to give and receive clear directions?

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