December 4, 2020
The Importance of Questions
Each EmpowerED 3.2.1 features a brief summary of my musings about and learning from multiple disciplines as they apply to leadership in education.
I’ve been thinking about questions lately. I find that my skill with asking questions can yield wildly different results. Every parent knows the answer to “What did you do in school today?” ninety-nine percent of the time gets a resounding, “Nothing.” We’ve learned to ask better questions like:
- What was the best part of your day?
- What was the hardest thing you had to do today?
- Did any of your classmates do anything funny?
What response do you receive when you ask a teacher how she thought the lesson went? Usually, a one-word reply is offered; “well,” “poorly,” and “okay” are some I’ve heard, leaving the observer to confirm or refute. These are simple illustrations of the point. I’ve also observed classrooms where teachers ask and answer their own questions. Sometimes, they give only a few seconds of think time between asking a question and calling on a student to respond; often it’s the same few students selected to answer. If we ask questions to understand what students are learning, shouldn’t we ask them all challenging questions that demand complex thought? Of course, we should, so why don’t we? Asking and answering questions in a classroom is like a grand dance between the teacher and the students. The teacher asks and the student answers quickly, correctly, and efficiently so that the lesson can continue. We don’t ask challenging questions because it takes time and we have curriculum to cover. Here’s where the shift in mindset becomes critical; that is, a shift from teaching to learning. If we care more about teaching, we will continue the dance. If we care more about learning, we’ll consider the big ideas below and encourage productive struggle, discussion, and deep questioning.
3 Big Ideas
- Questions show what you value.
“Questioning is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in organizations. It facilitates learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members,” note Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John in the Harvard Business Review (2018), “The Surprising Power of Questions.” In the classroom, questions focus thinking on the critical elements of the learning target. In the school, administrators and coaches’ questions can embed the core values of the school. For example, “Because we value collaboration at our school, how did your questioning enable learners to work together to develop an answer?”
- Questions lead to more questions and excitement.
“Questions are more important than answers because questions seek and frame and expose while answers, at their best, are temporary responses whose accuracy changes and shifts and decays over time, needing to be reformed and remade and reevaluated as the world itself changes,” writes Terry Heick in this 2020 TeachThought post. REALLY, check out my favorite clip on the importance of questions: “Rubik’s Cube” The YouTube commentary on the Rubrik’s Cube reads “It is more than a puzzle – it’s a question waiting to be answered. And when the right person finds the right question, it can set them on a journey to change the world. We salute Ernő Rubik and everyone helping young minds find the questions that challenge, excite, and let them see the world in a new way.”
- Questions encourage discussion.
The purpose and practice of active questioning has its beginnings in philosophy. “Socrates is well known for using questioning to probe the validity of an assumption, analyze the logic of an argument, and explore the unknown. Questions were a means to educate his students by drawing out their understanding of a subject and then leading them to discover a set of logical conclusions instead of lecturing them on what is true or false,” Ronald Vale wrote in the March 15, 2013 issue of Molecular Biology of the Cell titled “The Value of Asking Questions.” Socratic questioning is still advocated as a powerful contemporary teaching method, but not one I observe often enough. I found some useful resources for teachers and students interested in Socratic Seminars on the website of Villegas Middle School, Alford USD, Riverside, California in their “Teaching Toolbox”. Check out their observation tool and video! “Socratic Seminar in ELA 9-12” on The Teaching Channel offers a great video resource and supporting materials including poems, slides, and a scoring guide. It’s a nice starting place for novices to the method.
– Albert Einstein
“Asking a question is the simplest way of focusing thinking…asking the right question
may be the most important part of thinking.”
– Edward de Bono, British physician,
psychologist, author, inventor.
How do you use questions to deepen the trust,
support, and understanding of those you lead?
About the Author: Marcia Baldanza is also the author of Professional Practices, a Just ASK Senior Consultant. and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.