June 11th, 2014

Playing with Questions

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Preparing one of the plenary sessions for the recent Teaching Professor Conference provided me the opportunity to do some more work on questions, which if you’re a regular reader of this blog you will recognize as an ongoing interest of mine for more than a year now. In fact, the post on May 28, 2014 is a reprint of an article I wrote for the March 2013 issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. It represents some of my early thinking on the topic, including ways of emphasizing questions in our teaching and modeling good question types for our students. The ability to ask good questions is often an underrated and underdeveloped skill, yet questions can play such a significant role in learning when used properly.

Could we increase the effectiveness of questions if we “played” a bit more with them? I am thinking of playing with questions in several different senses starting with having fun with them. This means not always (ever?) using questions for punitive purposes, such as questions to see who’s done the reading or to call out someone who’s not paying attention, but asking good questions; ones that get after an interesting aspect of the content or confront long held assumptions and then just letting the questions hang out there. “Here’s an interesting question…” “Have you ever thought about this…” “What if x, y, and z aren’t true?”

A good question does its best work in that space after it’s asked and before it’s answered. In that space a good question can become a mental jump starter. It gets the brain’s motor turning over, catching, and sometimes roaring to life. So, if we play with that space in between, lengthening it by repeating or rephrasing the question, lengthening it with comments about its importance and intrigue, or lengthening the space with silence, chances are good that more mental motors will get started. If a question is truly important and central, why not hang it over an entire class session or content unit? Often we don’t give questions the time they need to work. Einstein explains. “It’s not that I’m so smart but I stay with the questions much longer.”

Then there is the sense of play as in chasing something around, playing with it before the final capture. Teachers can do this by assembling a collection of answers before designating a right or best one. A bit subversive? Yes, the teacher is playing off the belief that many students hold—questions have right answers, typically just one. For those students, some mental discomfort occurs when it appears that a question has several viable answers. They listen closely until they find out which one is correct. For other students, a collection of possible answers can be intriguing. They work on the options, trying to figure out for themselves which answer works best or if there just might be multiple answers. You can also engage in this sort of subversive play with comments like, “Why don’t you put this question in your notes. It’s one you’ll want to think about when you’re studying for the exam.” Or, more directly, “I’ve been known to put questions like this one on the exam.” Or, “Here’s a question I’ve been pondering for years.”

You can also play around with questions much like furniture gets moved around in the front room. You’re trying out different arrangements so you can see how they look and feel. With questions this might mean a set of queries that plays off that collection of answers. Or maybe you move a set of questions around and within a content chunk as a means of organizing that material or showing with questions how parts relate. Steven Quatrano (described online as a software engineer, management consultant, and teacher) has an interesting thought here: “Through questions we can organize our thinking around what we don’t know.”

I talked with someone at the conference who pushed back on this notion of playing with questions. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea. It could make students think questions are frivolous, not the serious inquires that lead to understanding and truth.” I agree that it’s possible to trivialize the importance of questions, but I don’t think that’s the sense of play I’m describing here. What I’m proposing are ways that demonstrate the driving force questions can be in learning—hoping it’s a process that motivates students to start asking themselves (and us) interesting, provocative queries.

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