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

Question GirlOne of the fundamental skills we try to teach our students is to ask good questions. I tell them they don't even have to mean them - if they'll throw themselves into it, and fake them well, it will work just about as well as true interrogative conviction.

We discuss the psychology behind this a bit, and look at examples. From that point on, it's an 'open trick' all year: you pretend to be in love, you end up in love. You pretend to be a thug, you usually end up being a thug. You pretend to be interested in whatever history we're studying at the time - the people, the events, the issues - and chances are you'll become at least slightly more interested. When I discuss the same things in workshops with teachers I often ask, "Seriously - what's usually better for your relationship... 'keeping it real,' or faking it really, really well?"

Come to think of it, that may not be great 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 as 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 apparently 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

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

RELATED POST: What Was Your Question?

RELATED POST: Who's Asking? (from Alfie Kohn on AlfieKohn.org)