It’s All About Finding the Right Questions

Many students believe that going through school is about finding the right answers. The longer I’m in education, the more I believe that it’s all about finding the right questions.

What is the “right question” you ask? Consider this brilliant comic, called simply “Airfoil”, from XKCD:

When I read the first panel, I only skimmed the description of how an airfoil operates because in my mind I already possessed this knowledge. Moving to the second panel, I found myself as dumbstruck as the teacher in the third panel. I had no idea how an airplane can fly upside down. That one question caused me to reevaluate an explanation I’ve known for years but never questioned.

That one insightful question forced me to learn something new. 

As the rest of the comic illustrates, teachers can react very differently at that particular moment. Although the top panel illustrates what I think most teachers would like to do, I know we’ve all had moments where we’ve handed out the “It’s… complicated. And we need to move on.” explanation.

Such a dismissive attitude is of course not simply the fault of teachers. Few learners take the time to appreciate the value of an insightful question.

As information becomes more readily available and we walk around with access to the collected knowledge of the world on devices in our pockets, it’s tempting to think that there is nothing we can’t immediately access. Some have postulated that the day is near when we have so much access to knowledge that we’ll need less education. Those soothsayers overlook the value of questions.

Without the right questions, information has no use. And both teachers and learners would benefit from spending more time developing the critical thinking skills needed to ask better questions.

Maryellen Weimer’s blog, The Teaching Professor, which is everything this blog wishes it could be, covered this concept in today’s post. Weimer notes how odd it first sounded to her to hear about exams that test students on how they ask questions, but given the potential for such questions to unlock true understanding, it’s odd that we don’t test student’s ability to form questions. You might also want to click on through to read about the article thats she reviews, which talks about assignments designed to get students to ask better questions. Although those assignments come from science classes, the concepts behind them are applicable to any class.

So readers, how do you find ways to ask and receive better questions?


5 Responses to “It’s All About Finding the Right Questions”

  1. 1 Michael Sullivan
    January 28, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    It seems to me that if you start by putting up a question on the board first, before anything else, that you can help to create a “questioning mindset” among your students. If they notice that you, the teacher, is asking questions then this may become part of the fabric of the class routine. And your students may pick up questioning as a way of solving problems in class.

    • January 28, 2011 at 4:38 pm

      Michael, You’re right. Modeling that “questioning mindset” is one of the best things a teacher can do. I’m also thinking it’s probably one of the hardest things for teachers to learn. I know when I started teaching, I had trouble finding those questions that would change my students’ mindsets.
      Thanks for reading.

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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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