Questions and Questioning

Question Everything (Nullius in verba) Take nobody’s word for it flickr photo by dullhunk shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Our existence is dominated by questions. From the youngest baby, who wonders whether their chubby little toes will fit into their mouths, to the leading Nobel Prize physicist who ponders the stuff of the universe, questions fill our waking moments.

Asking questions underpins how we learn. Have you ever spent time with a 3 year old? Their intense curiosity about everything reflects their burning need to know, which in turn, feeds their development.

Ironically, as we grow older we seem to ask less questions. In a traditional classroom, the teacher, who is the holder of the knowledge, is the questioner, while the students, who are the learners, are the ones who are required to supply the answers. This understanding of learning, where knowledge is a fixed resource and students empty vessels which must be filled may be the reason why so many young, curious questioners become accepting of the status quo. That’s the way things are, that’s the way things have always been, and there is no reason why things will not continue the same way.

You don’t learn unless you question—but we often don’t teach our kids to question; we teach them to answer our questions, forcing them to learn facts and skills. But since we may not know what facts or skills that kid’s going to need in the future, what you really want is to empower them to be able to find their own answers when they need them. Joi Ito.

It should be clear to almost all of us that this is no longer the case. We live in times of rapid change, and knowledge is anything but static. Teaching students out of questioning is unacceptable in the best of cases, and downright dangerous in the worst scenarios. Those who will remain resilient and who will thrive will not longer be those who accept things and ‘get on with it’; it will be those who question, who seek to understand, and who are able to apply new understandings to evolving and unfamiliar contexts.

Questioning is of even greater importance when one considers that the sources from which we seek our information may also be heavily biased or lacking in accuracy; terms such as ‘fake news’ and ‘alternate facts’ are cropping up with alarming frequency. To be critically literate, one must engage with information openly, but with a questioning mind. Accepting any information at face value, no matter how glossily presented, is no longer wise practice. There are now browser plugins (such as the B.S. Detector) which can help identify unreliable news sources; but we have an even better, more portable b.s. detector – the questioning brain!

6questions flickr photo by critical thinking asylum shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Another type of questioning that we all need to refine is our ability to search for digital information. So often when we want answers, we turn to Google (and, one would hope, library catalogues, databases or even social media!). Each of these sources (search engines, library catalogues, databases and social media) requires different questioning strategies. While Google seeks to respond ever more effectively to natural language searching (so when we type in Who was Christopher Columbus? the right answer comes up), library catalogues and databases, which are built differently, require different search techniques. Social media, which features a completely different type of information, requires different search tools again. How often have we heard that

“Google can bring back 100 000 answers. A Librarian can bring you back the right one.” Neil Gaiman.

This is because Librarians understand how each of these information sources works, and apply this knowledge to how they formulate questions, in order to quickly return the information that’s needed. This is not secret librarian business; in fact, if you ask a librarian, they will be more than happy to share their tips for questioning effectively with you! I’d love to share some of these with you now, but that is indeed a future post.

The third type of questioning that is perhaps the richest, and yet most overlooked is the art of the inquiry. Inquiry learning is often seen as something that occurs only in primary school classrooms, however inquiry learning underpins almost all learning that happens everyday. When we run our hand under the tap to see if the water has heated, we are conducting an inquiry. When we choose a restaurant based on Yelp reviews for an evening meal, we have conducted an inquiry. When we complete a PhD, we are conducting a HUGE inquiry! Inquiry learning is formulated on questions. It begins with a question (or series of questions) and prompts further questioning as the investigation continues. Often, inquiry leaves us with even more questions than we began with! Inquiry learning is taught in schools where the process of learning is valued; and where it is understood that the most authentic, meaningful and resilient learning happens when the learner explores and discovers themselves, connecting new learnings with those previously held, and developing those strategies which may be applied to countless other learning experiences throughout many different contexts.

Questioning is central to learning. If perhaps questions have slid from your radar recently, below you will find a range of resources and inspiration to get you back to your and your classroom back to curiosity central.

Questioning Frameworks: a trove of resources for inquiry learning compiled by Mandy Lupton

A More Beautiful Question: Warren Berger: much of the inspiration for this blog post was drawn from Berger’s work. His site is extensive and inspiring.

Walking the World with Questions in our Heads: a discussion by Kath Murdoch about the value of presenting learning as a question rather than a statement

2 thoughts on “Questions and Questioning”

  1. Love this post and these ideas Kay, so true. I had a method lecturer who specifically taught me to elicit more information by questions and not to give an answer. It has been a characteristic of my teaching throughout my career. I also spend time with my Year 12s getting them to write questions – it means they need to understand the parameters of the examination!

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Margaret! I think that if we were all better at crafting questions, learning everywhere would be richer and of higher quality. One of the hardest parts of the PhD has been to get the question just right! Getting skilled in questioning is a never ending process, but so important! Your Year 12s are so fortunate to have someone who spends that time with them developing this under-rated skill 🙂

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