In the past two weeks I visited two schools in Veneto to engage students with the topic of Artificial Intelligence, which is something everybody seems to be happy to hear about these days: on the 10th of January I visited a school in Vicenza, and on the 17th a school in Venice. In both cases there were about 50-60 students, but there was a crucial difference: while the school in Venezia (the "Liceo Marco Foscarini", where I have been giving lectures in the past within the project called "Art and Science") was a classical liceum and the high-schoolers who came to listen to my presentation were between 16 and 18 years old, the one in Vicenza was a middle school, and its attending students were between 11 and 13 years old. 
Since the contents of the lecture could withstand virtually no change - I was too busy during these first few post-Christmas weeks - the two-pronged test was an effective testing ground to spot differences in the reaction of the two audiences. To be honest, I approached the first event with some worries that the content I was presenting to those young kids was going to be a bit overwhelming to them, so maybe in hindsight we could imagine that the impression I got was biased by this "low expectations" attitude. 

To make matters worse, because my lecture was the first in a series organized by a local academy, with comparticipation of the Comune of Vicenza, the lecture I gave had to follow speeches from the school director, the maior of Vicenza, and a couple of other introductions - something that I was sure was further decreasing the stamina and willingness to listen to a frontal lecture of the young audience. In fact, I was completely flabberghasted.

Not only did the middle schoolers in Vicenza follow with attention and in full silence the 80-minutes-long talk I had prepared. They also interrupted a few times with witty questions (as I had begged them to do, in fact). At the end of the presentation, I was hit by a rapid succession of questions ranging over the full contents of the lecture - from artificial intelligence to particle physics, to details about the SWGO experiment, astrophysics, and what not. I counted about 20 questions and then lost track of that. This continued after the end of the event, when some of the students were not completely happy yet and came to meet me and ask for more detail.

Above, a moment during the lecture in Vicenza

When I gave the same lecture in Venice, I must say I did receive again several interesting questions. But in comparison, the Foscarini teenagers were clearly a bit less enthusiastic on the whole of the topic of the lecture. Maybe my assessment comes from the bias I was mentioning earlier; and in part, I have to say I have much more experience with high-schoolers than with younger students, so I knew better what to expect and I was not surprised by the outcome. 

This comparison seems to align with what has been once observed by none other than Carl Sagan. I have to thank Phil Warnell here, who commenting on Facebook to a post I wrote there on my experience with middle schoolers cited a piece from Sagan that is quite relevant:

“Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born scientists - although heavy on the wonder side and light on scepticism. They’re curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enormous enthusiasm. I’m asked follow-up questions. They’ve never heard of the notion of a ‘dumb question’.”
But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize ‘facts’. By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost much of the wonder, and gained very little scepticism. They’re worried about asking ‘dumb’ questions; they’re willing to accept inadequate answers; they don’t pose follow-up questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, second-by-second, the approval of their peers.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, p-322

“There are naïve questions, tedious questions, ill phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.
Bright, curious children are a national and world resource. They need to be cared for, cherished, and encouraged. But mere encouragement is not enough. We must also give them the essential tools to think with.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, p-323

I cannot but concur with what Sagan says in these two quotes. I also believe that part of the unwillingness of high-schoolers to ask questions is due to the judgment of their peers. What happens is that until we are 12 or 13 we for the most part have not yet had experience with the negative feedback we may get by being participative in school events, and we do not yet fear the reaction of our friends and not-so-friendly schoolmates. It seems that kind of experience grows a shell around them, making them a bit less willing to expose themselves and speak up to discuss what they did not understand, or to express enthusiasm. I think that is a bit sad, but it is of course part of our early trajectory amid experiences that form us and equip us with the vaccines we are going to need in the rest of our life.