Asking Good Questions (And You Don't Have to Mean It)

Question GirlOne of the fundamental skills I try to teach my students is to ask good questions. And they don't have to mean them.

I mean, it's great if they do. If there's something in class which catches their attention - even for a moment - by all means, they should speak up. "Why yes, Jacobie - we DID used to value 'due process' in this country... long, long ago."  

But even if they're not naturally engaged, I assure them, if they'll throw themselves into it, and FAKE their interest and concern WELL, that works just about as well as true interrogative conviction.

We discuss the psychology behind this and look at examples. I mean, how many romantic comedies have you endured in which the two leads PRETEND to be in love - to get a job, to win a bet, to secure immmigration papers, etc.? What's going to happen by halfway through the movie? Every time?

"Oh, but movies aren't real life," says the clearly-not-a-history-teacher reading this. Alright, then - how many actors and actresses, having played romantic leads, emerge convinced that they are, in fact, IN LOVE? They've been pretending hard enough that it "takes" - they end up believing it, and acting on it (as it were). Supermarket tabloids depend on this phenomenon.

Cedric Diggory and that girl from Twilight? They're not in love. Never were. No one's "in love" with Kristen Stewart - it's not possible. She has neither emotions or a soul. But they played "in love" enough in the dozen or so Twilight movies that they no longer knew the difference. 

But Blue, you say, actors aren't the brightest people - that's not a fair example. 

OK, to history then. 

Throughout human history, hundreds of cultures over thousands of years have promoted some form of arranged marriage. You turn 14, and your parents introduce you to third-cousin BeauBeau. "BeauBeau, this is Beulah - your betrothed. Beulah, this is BeauBeua - your defender and provider and ruler of all you are. You are now eternally - BEAUBEAU STOP PICKING THAT OR IT WILL NEVER HEAL! - now eternally bound before God through your love and devotion to one another."

You know the historical success rate for arranged marriages? Upwards of 90%, depending on your sources. I respectfully suggest this is largely because not being in love - not being "interested", in our analogy - is simply not an option. She's gonna cook, you're gonna hunt, and together you will make babies, because that's what you're supposed to do.

You thus throw yourselves into it with fervor. 

More often than not, a few years down the road, you realize you've actually grown quite attached. Sometimes you've even fallen in love along the way. The intentional has become internalized. 

We have a completely different system in American culture. We follow the "tingly feeling" system. I start feeling tingly for you; you get a little tingly for me... eventually we decide to mingle our tingles. 

But then... tragedy. A year or two down the road, the tingle has faded. Maybe vanished. Worse, you're feeling tingly towards someone else (maybe Cedric Diggory, who's foolishly trying to tingle with Kristen Stewart. SHE CAN'T TINGLE, CEDRIC - WE'VE COVERED THIS.) I'm feeling a bit tingly towards @sluttyunicorn17 who I met online #dontjudgeourlove.

We're not tingling together anymore! Our love... it is dead - like our interest in Oklahoma History, or Kristen Stewart's eyes, for example.

Because divorce is expensive, we go to a marriage counselor, who will tell us - in essence - that we need to fake it harder.

She'll dress it up as 'reflective listening' and 'love languages,' which is fine, but they all come down to a simple principle - you need to pretend harder to care even when you don't right that moment. Do this long enough and odds are good you'll start to feel it again. At least partially. 

Once introduced, this is an 'open charade' in class, all year. If students will pretend to be interested in whatever history we're studying at the time - the people, the events, the issues - chances are good they'll become more interested... at least slightly. Comprehension improves, as does retention - the kind of things you'd expect when genuinely interested. Like exercising or practicing the piano, meaning it deeply is great, but doing it because it needs done is almost as effective in practical terms. 

Such is reality - it's the thinnest of gildings, yes?

My first several wives would argue that I'm not the best source of relationship advice - but pedagogically I'm on solid ground. Nothing tricks your brain into learning like pretending you care and asking really good questions. And nothing's more exciting for a teacher than teenagers coming up with meaningful, unexpected, thoughtful questions - sometimes questions you can't possibly answer! Maybe, with enough information, enough time, enough understanding, they could begin to answer them - or maybe not. Isn't it great?

Usually we begin with something easy - provocative, but accessible. I like photographs as a first step:

Iffy Swimwear Choices

How many questions can you come up with? Come on, don't just move on - try for a moment. Ten good questions? Twenty? The more questions we ask, the more details we notice. We think of things we wouldn't have thought of if we were just 'observing'. Here's another:

Smoking Boys

Stop and see how many you could ask. The first dozen or so are usually fairly predictable - when was this taken? Where are they? Who's the man? Why is he giving these boys cigarettes? Is this a locker room? Is he smiling? Have they smoked before? Was smoking not evil at this time? Is he Philip Morris?

Eventually, though, some really interesting things begin to emerge - how do we reconcile the racial diversity of the boys with the time period indicated by the clothing, hair, and b&w photo? Is this a boys' home of some sort? Are these actually cigarettes? Where's the lighter? Are they candy? Is this a reward for something, or a lesson of some sort? What was the photographer intending to convey? And who IS that MAN?!?

It works with other types of visuals as well...

Government Bureau - G. Tooker

 "Government Bureau" (George Tooker, 1956)

The key is to S L O W  D O W N and prompt everyone to be involved. How you do that is up to you, but we have to let curiosity have time to brew. It doesn't have to be curiousity specifically ABOUT anything represented here - just the experience itself is a good foundation for everything else ever.

OK Stats

Scoff if you like, but you haven't lived the good life until you've had to regain control of a room of teenagers (or teachers) arguing the implications and inferences of a good table full of numbers or the most important questions to ask about a swell bar graph. Seriously - who doesn't love a good bar graph?

It works with text as well, if you're so inclined... 

Harlem - Langston Hughes

I have a story that goes with this one, actually. See, I found out at the last minute one year that I was going to teach 10th grade U.S. History, and I had never really -

Actually, that one's better in person. 

You don't have to use these of course, or these kinds of visuals or text samples, or this many, or whatever. I am a big fan, however, of starting with 'non-threatening' material when learning and practicing a new skill. I like to start with stuff I find amusing or strange, and transition into the legit stuff. Whatever gets THEM doing more ASKING is YAY!

Ben Stein as Economic Teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off

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