The Power of Questions: 4 Traits of Learning Communities with Deeply Engaged Learners

While this is far too simplistic, amid my visits to various current and emerging models of schooling, I’ve come to loosely categorize types of schools. One factor that seems to be among the more telling has to do with the role of questions in the schools. Are they encouraged? Are they celebrated? Who asks the most questions? How do the questions shape and inform everything else that happens? What types of questions do people ask? Do questions evoke excitement or anxiety? As I look at learning organizations from the perspective of questions, I’ve consistently noticed four traits that tend to have a huge impact on the extent to which learners are deeply engaged in inquiry, even getting lost in the explorations, and taking ownership for much of their learner. I’ll frame those four traits in the form of four questions.

1. How much time and energy is devoted to learning how to ask and frame questions?

As Einstein explained, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” A community that truly values inquiry often starts by helping people learn how to ask questions, an ability that seems natural, but practice, experimentation and mentoring can help people turn into world-class questioners, a valuable skill in today’s world.

I wrote about this back in 2013 in an article entitled, Teaching Students to Ask Great Questions.

2. How much attention do teachers pay to the types of questions students ask, noting the rich insights that gives into the thinking and perspectives of the students.

Lots of teachers pay attention to the answers students give to questions, especially in the form of answers on quizzes and tests. However, there is a treasure trove of valuable insights that we can glean from the way we frame questions, how we ask them, when we ask them, and when we don’t. Voltaire wrote, “Judge others by their questions rather than their answers.” I’m not sure teachers need to judge students by their questions, but paying attention is consistently valued in many schools that have students deeply engaged in their learning.

3. Do students craft and ask more compelling questions than teachers?

Yes, great teachers consistently master the art of asking compelling questions. Frameworks like Understanding by Design focus upon the importance and value of writing excellent “essential questions.” Many project-based learning activities are propelled by starting with a provocative and curious question. In many instances, the teacher is the one doing all the initial questioning, but more schools and organizations have witnessed a transformation when they shifted that responsibility over to the students, encouraging them become great questioners.

4. How much do students and teachers recognize that framing and asking questions is a powerful life skill?

Neil Postman, a figure who influenced much of my early thinking about life in a technological world, argued that asking questions is such a critical life skill that it could easily warrant a class in school dedicated to the subject. Oddly, this is something that often has no formal place in a school curriculum. Yet, when I look at some of the most engaged classrooms and learning spaces, they are characterized by the extent to which questioning is celebrated, encouraged, and valued.

How might you champion, celebrate or promote a culture of questioning in your most valued learning communities?

Do you want to explore this more? Here are the two best sources on the web for exploring questions in education.