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.

Fanning the Flame of Self-Directed Learning

Five years ago, I attempted something for the first time as a college professor. I’d done it as a K-12 teacher over the years, but this was a first with traditional undergraduate students. I redesigned an entire undergraduate course around six self-directed learning projects for each unit in the course. I still kept a midterm and final exam to test understanding of the “grammar” of the course. However, I threw away every other graded assessment. Instead, at the beginning of each unit, students had the challenge of proposing a project that tied directly to the learning objectives for that unit. The proposal needed to cover the following elements.

1. What is the question that will drive my inquiry?

The question should be compelling, provocative, deep, substantive, and it should drive you to explore and discover something that matters to you and others.

2. How will I pursue answers to this question?

It might include a tentative reading list, field trips, observations, interviews, experiments, research, a review of the peer-reviewed literature, participating in online or other communications or anything else that might help. This part of the proposal didn’t need to be complete, but the student had to show that they had an initial and tentative plan.

3. How will I document my journey?

This should be in a form that allows the instructor/coach the review it at any point, and it needs to be updated at least twice a weekly, but daily is recommended. I also encouraged this to be designed in a way that classmates and others can view it and provide feedback. Students could use a shared Google Doc (or folder), a Wiki, a blog, a YouTube video diary, or any other format that met the above criteria.

4. What culminating product, project or performance will be the result of my work?

This should be something that demonstrates the learning gained by pursuing answers to that driving question. I encourage students to do something that is valuable to the student and beneficial to a specific person or group of people. In some ways, this added a service learning element to the project, something the resonates with my deep conviction that a great education is about discovering one’s calling, which is always found in love for and service to others in some way.

5. Who will be the target audience for my product, project, or performance?

While sharing it with classmates is nice, I challenged students to find the audience that would most benefit from the work and share it with them, preferably in a presentation to them. I went back and forth on this element over the years, but some of the best projects were consistently the ones created and presented to a real-world audience.

6. What is the tentative timeline for this journey?

Since this was done in a traditional semester class and each project was for a unit, there was a fixed maximum amount of time, but if students requested more time, I always gave it to them. In fact, I remember a student coming to me midway through a unit, troubled that she would not be able to finish it in time. I simply said, “No worries. Just change the due date.” She looked at me confused so I said it again, explaining that she was in charge of the timeline, not me. I was just there to help her meet her goals.

If students were doing all this work, what were you doing as a teacher?

This was the best part. I didn’t have to do anything. I just sat around and checked Facebook status updates. I’m just kidding. In fact, I was never so busy and never had so much interaction with students as I did in the classes with these projects. I was a coach, mentor, guide, concierge, intellectual match-maker, and resource. I met with students individually and in small groups, giving them tips and resources on how to frame their questions, how to identity great resources, how to connect with experts and groups related to their projects. In fact, along the way, I built my own personal learning network by helping students reach out and connect. I also provided often optional mini-lecture on topics and skills relevant to their work. I also coordinated activities to them them work their plans, workshop their projects with peers, and surface new possibilities.

I never used my cell phone more in class. I would be talking with a student or small group about something and they had a pressing question. If it was about an author or person, I would just look up their contact information and call them on the spot, asking if I could put them on speaker phone. Or, I would craft an email and try to broker introductions. I was modeling what I hoped the students would gain the competence and confidence to do, and many of them did it.

What was the result?

Without question, starting to run a class this way resulted in the most impressive student work and thinking that I’d ever seen as an educator. I learned so much from these students and their inquiries. Many of them, with a little polishing, were publishable quality. They were substantive and proposed compelling solutions to pressing problems in the world, especially the world of education (I’m and education prof).

It wasn’t all good. There were four common challenges.

1. Time Management

Some students just didn’t stick to their plan. They were so used to cramming for tests, papers, and projects that they had lost or failed to develop time management skills so valuable in working on an in-depth and extended project. This was evident in their learning journal entries, so I would reach out to them individually, trying to help them build this valuable skill, but it was not easy going for some of the students. In fact, I found myself helping students systematically develop time management skills to find success in this new model.

2. Limited “Research” Literacy

Some students really struggled at first with how to explore answers to a question. They had spent little time really getting to know about libraries, Internet search strategies and the like. In addition, I was challenging them to use the skills present in qualitative and quantitative researchers, so I taught optional mini-lessons on different strategies: observation strategies, interviewing techniques, how to reach out to a stranger, how to set up an informal thought or life experiment, how to make sense of a quantitate research report, etc. It was very rewarding to watch the lights turn on in their minds when they began to imagine the possibilities of using these strategies to reach a personally meaningful goal.

3. Time

I mentioned time management before, but I discovered quickly that many students were used to getting through college courses with a minimal time investment. Many skimmed instead of reading deeply and pondering. They did what they needed to pass or get the desired grade on the test or paper. However, many worked long hours, had extensive time commitments with extracurriculars and more. Perhaps this is part of time management, but I really saw it as just not having a lifestyle that left room for deep, really deep learning.

Add to this the fact that some students were busy meeting the demand and expectations of 4-5 other professors at the same time, and it becomes hard to really lose yourself in a strain of inquiry like this. It is why such things work so much better in schools that embrace it on a school-wide level, and why some people don’t discover the joy of these approach until they are out of school (either because they drop out, graduate, or never start). As it stood, I often found students cutting short on the depth of an inquiry because of the demands of other courses. There was only so much time in the day, week and semester; and each student prioritized their work differently.

4. Discomfort with the “Lack of Direction”

I gave more direction than ever in this approach, but I didn’t tell them what to learn as much. I told them that I was there to help them develop the competence and confidence to learn on their own. There were still students who nearly demanded that I tell them what question to ask, what resources and methods to use, and what projects to create.

I remember reading the course evaluations of a couple such students. “People don’t learn by asking their own questions and seeking answers. They learn by a teacher telling them what to learn.” “I don’t have time for this ____. You are the teacher, so shouldn’t you be teaching me instead of telling me to teach myself?” “This is too hard.” I took every one of these statements to heart because they told so much about the beliefs, values, perceptions and experiences of these students. In the end, there were some who were genuinely philosophically opposed to such an approach. I was teaching future educators and they truly believe that good teachers tell you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

When I was convinced that this was truly a deep-seated philosophical conviction of students, I tried to channel it, but suggesting a couple of strong resources that related to these convictions. In fact, some of these students ended up creating the most amazing projects by tapping into the community of fellow essentialists, perennialist, or classicists. That love for content and ideas was often a great foundation for this sort of work.

Helping Students Be More Self-Directed

In the end, while I too easily recall my failures in these classes, my failure to light the spark of self-directed learning in some students, I have so many amazing memories of students who got it. Boy did they get it, and I pray that they still have it and use it. School has a way of taking it away from you sometimes through teachers who dictate, direct, and demand more than spark, ignite, and fan into flame. As a teacher, there are definitely times to direct. However, this experiment with my students left me with strong convictions about the transformational power of student-centered projects. When I look at this type of inquiry and learning I see a bit of the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Booker T. Washington, Andrew Carnegie, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ansel Adams, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and hundreds of others. I think this is a spirit that we want to spread today.