“What would you do if…?”

The above heading is the way I started some questions in my recent interviews with newly-arrived students (10-13 years of age) for my Masters research project. They are hypothetical questions, asking the students to tell me what they would do if they were the music teacher, or if they could play any instrument they wanted, or other suggestions along these lines. The idea is that they answers will give me further insights into the way they perceive the music program – in terms of what is already taking place, what they most engage with, what they perhaps miss about music in their home country, etc.

However, none of the three students I interviewed responded to these hypothetical questions very comfortably. Before I started my research, I had discussed my interview questions with the principal, and she had said that she thought the hypothetical questions would be difficult for the students. I thought a lot about how I would present the questions, but knew that I wanted to be able to ask them, just in case I got some rich, informative responses. But I was wrong, the questions were difficult for the students to answer, so yesterday I chatted with some of the class teachers about why this might be.

One suggested that language was the problem. Did she mean the use of the conditional, that this was too abstract a notion, or too far removed from the present? I reminded the teachers that the students had had interpreters sitting beside them, helping them understand the questions in their own language. Wouldn’t this make things easier? However, even when the questions were interpreted, and the student answered in hisher own language, there were long pauses and wrinkled brows. My sense was that these questions were kind of unfathomable to the students, evn when they were explained in their own language, and examples of possible answers were given.

Perhaps the notion of hypothetical questions is too abstract, another teacher suggested. “Our students work best in quite concrete matters – they will go with the obvious, visible, tangible information as much as possible.”

This is something that I have also noticed in my interview transcripts. Whenever a question is slightly ambiguous, the student will always give the most concrete answer.

But why are abstract notions a problem? Is it because of the children’s developmental stage? When does a greater level of comfort with abstract ideas kick in? This is something I have to read more about, as my understanding of how this works is really through practical experience and my own observation, rather than hard-core, proven facts (if such a thing is agreed to exist!)

Or is the difficulty with dealing in the abstract part of the experience of transition? I have already observed a kind of survival mode in the newly-arrived students, where they are so overwhelmed by all of this new information (new country, new school, new people, new culture, new language, new home, etc etc etc!) that they just accept things, and dont’ question them. They take in information as it comes, and only process it as much as necessary, so they don’t necessarily make connections between things (concepts, events, skills). These connections seem to come later.

If you are in this kind of raw material, unprocessed, survival mode, then perhaps abstract ideas are not relevant. There isn’t time or brain space to figure out how they connect up, so the brain just moves on, skips over it, looks for the tangible raw data and processes that instead. Therefore, the brain isn’t ready or prepared to start playing around with hypotheticals.

I also feel like I am noticing that the students have trouble recalling the recent past. Perhaps this is also part of the transition process. And perhaps this stops them thinking to much about possible futures. Therefore, again, hypotheticals don’t make a lot of sense.

One teacher then suggested that perhaps it is a cultural thing. These students don’t necessarily grow up in homes where there is a lot of sense of possibility in life. She thought about it as we spoke, and wondered if in fact hypothetical imagining is something of a middle-class concept, in that it is encouraged, and a common discussion tool for both adults and children. She lives with a two-and-a-half year old, and says that this child would have “no problem with hypotheticals at all.”

What other reasons can readers think of, for the ineffectiveness of this style of questioning? I’d love to know your thoughts, or be pointed towards some further reading.

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