“A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.” Warren Berger
My ability to foster deep classroom discussions depends largely on the quality of the questions I ask, so I continually work to improve them. Recently, I have found two sources to be useful.
The first is a set of symbols that help me distinguish question types. They come from my work with colleagues in the systems science community to help groups engage in deeper dialog about significant issues. The symbols, most of which are variations on a question mark, help us clarify where we are in a process. They do this primarily by forcing us to determine what type of question we are asking.
Translated to the classroom, I find that the symbols provide a mnemonic device that helps me recognize the types of questions that are appropriate for different goals and situations.
By asking myself, “What type of question mark would I use here?” I force myself to answer, “What type of question am I asking?”
The other source was unexpected and led me to a shift of attitude. It was a CD about selling art. My brother-in-law is an artist, and he frequently sells his work at arts and craft shows. He shared Bruce Baker’s Dynamic Sales and Customer Service Techniques for Artists and Craft Makers with me, and after I got past the “students are not customers” reaction, I found some helpful suggestions. I will describe these below using a sample set of the question marks.
The closed question mark symbolizes something that has a clear answer that can be found, given reasonable time and relevant expertise.
Baker says that you should never ask a question that may lead to “no.” Such questions shift the attitude of potential customers to “no sale.” For example, “May I help you?” leads most frequently to, “No, I’m just looking.” It implies that customers need help and cannot understand something or make decisions on their own—a clear turnoff.
In asking a closed question we are selling knowledge and skill that we feel is important and seek to share. But it is often like saying “no.” It tends to dampen rather than enliven a discussion. For example, “What is Occams’s Razor?” The answer may be more or less sophisticated, but it will be right or wrong; end of discussion.
The Revised Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives includes six levels: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Are closed questions simply those that are low in the taxonomy?
The open question mark symbolizes a question that is intentionally left unanswered for a period of time, prompting deep consideration, challenge to its underlying assumptions, and perhaps a reframing of the question itself.
Instead of “May I help you?” Baker recommends that a salesperson say, “How may I help you?” or “If you have any questions, let me know?” These offer assistance without implying that it is necessary. Consequently, further interaction, perhaps leading to a sale, is more likely.
When we ask open questions, and model their treatment as such, we sell the value of sustained, thoughtful inquiry. Rather than, or perhaps immediately after, “What is Occam’s Razor?” we might ask, “In what types of circumstances might Occam’s Razor deceive us“
The questionarrow asks about the nature of connections, for example, causal connections. Baker suggests telling the story of your product, for example, the trusted source of its materials, the process of its making, and the high quality from it being hand made. This can move perceived (and thus actual) value beyond immediate utility to its contribution to one’s life.
By exploring relationships, we not only advance our understanding of the topic, we sell a powerful way of gaining insight, one that some say is the essence of learning. For example, Hofstadter and Sander say that analogy is the “fuel and fire of thinking.” To continue along the lines of previous examples, “In what ways might Occam’s Razor be applied in relation to the scientific method?”
When you are asked, “Do you have X?” and you do not, Baker suggests responding, “I have Y.” He also cautions that there are no stupid questions.
A student question is not simply a request for help. It is an invitation to engage with him or her, and it grants us permission to offer advice and guidance. Whether through a brief exchange, the probing discourse of Socratic dialog, or the extended experience of deep play, we can make a question a stepping stone, often to a better question. And we can sell the love of learning. As an example, “Applying the principle of Occam’s Razor, which of these hypotheses is best?” could lead to the more revealing question, “What assumptions are being made in these competing potential explanations?”
What question does a Google search ask If you could replace that with a better question, what would it be?
The symbols can be used in sequence as an inquiry unfolds, say over a class or semester. For example, filling in the circle of an open question means you are shifting to an attempt to answer it. Then making the dot into a comma indicates you recognize the need for, or have found a better next question.
Baker describes the phenomenon of “joining up.” People will join whatever energy they perceive in others, so it’s important to foster the energy you want in everything about your booth—the physical layout and objects, the sounds and smells, and especially the interpersonal interactions.
When we ask or answer a question, all students in the class pick up on the energy of the exchange. Consequently, every question and answer has the ability to push the discussion forward or shut it down.
The exclamation point indicates a strong feeling, for example, of certainty.
Baker explains that telling a customer that “you need to …” or “you have to …” is an immediate turn off. It assumes that you know what is best for someone else.
As Elizabeth Green emphasizes in her book Building a Better Teacher, content expertise and pedagogical expertise are different, and our content expertise can lead us to overestimate our pedagogical expertise. We can, for example, make false assumptions about how each of our students learns. A reminder is to turn exclamations into questions.
What do you see if you look at a question mark from the side?!
What types of questions do you ask your students? How do you signal to them which type of question you are asking? What questions have prompted terrific discussions for you? What questions have been dead ends? When can an answer be better than the question to which it responds? Why does questioning plummet when children enter schools? How do you interpret student’s questions such as, “Is this what you want?” “Am I going in the right direction?” and “Will this be on the test?”