The Power of Questions

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”- Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters To a Young Poet

I passionately found and read Rilke’s writing over and over and over again when I was a teenager and into young adulthood, and his words continue to resonate for me.

I have been thinking a lot about the power of questions lately, and our relationship to questions. My three year old is at the stage where he is constantly asking questions about everything – how does this work? Why do we do this? What does this mean? He spends his day questioning, and that is how he is learning so much about his world. I try to be patient and open with providing the most (and age-appropriate) response to all of his questions, as well as encouraging his curiosity.

But something happens when we get older – we seem to lose our questions. We become more comfortable with answers, and limited answers at best. We lose our capacity for questioning. Questioning is perceived in a negative way, and interpreted as defiance. Our natural ability to ask questions seems to disappear.

I teach at a college, and for one of my assignments, students are asked to come up with a research question about a social service topic that they care about. I thought it was an easy exercise, until I went into my classroom and my students looked at me like I had three eyes. Overall, they are challenged to develop questions that they want to think about and research. We now do extensive collective brainstorming to help each other with developing questions, but it doesn’t come easy. While most of my students can identify a topic that they are interested in, when I ask them: “What is it that you want to know or better understand? What questions do you have this topic?”, their mind is blank. They haven’t thought about questions.

I have realized that questioning can be used as a powerful pedagogical tool in my teaching. I try to encourage questioning as a way to challenge students to think differently and deeper. For example, once we have discussed and learned about a subject, I ask my students to come up with questions to look up online and dig deeper into their learning. I crowdsource my test questions, asking my students to come up with good questions that would effectively test their learning (at an understanding/not fact based level), and then I promise to use some of their questions on my tests (ironically, their questions are often harder/more complex than mine would be!). I find that while, at first students are uncomfortable with the task of creating questions, once we have done it together a few times, they enjoy the challenge.

Michael Wesch, in his amazing Ted Talk “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-Able”,  speaks about gauging student engagement by the questions they ask when learning. The typical questions that we hear from students sadly show a lack of engagement: “What do we need to know for this test?”, “How many multiple choice questions will there be?” “When will my assignment be due?” etc… Wesch passionately states, “A good question is one that leads you on a quest.”

The quest is lifelong, through our ups and downs and windy paths alone and together. There will always be more questions than answers, and questions that arise from existing answers. In the words of Rilke, let’s ‘love the questions themselves’.

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Questions

  1. I find my guys have difficulty with questions and I think it is partly about shame if you don’t have the right answer. Where does curiousity stop because fear takes over. I am also finding as I age that there are questions about my life which are big and scary… what is the dance all about, why is family important but frustrating, why is my love for my grandchildren so powerful and what do I want to accomplish in the limited time I have left in this world. Thanks for writing.

  2. I also teach at the college level and my students also struggle with being able to formulate an “intelligent” question about a topic!! I decided to force them to practice during our oral presentation unit. I emphasized that the more they practice digesting information and formulating a question, the easier it gets!!! For each oral presentation, I assigned two other students to complete a peer review which included a question for the presenters. In order to get credit for the question, they had to actually ask it out loud. I was shocked with the simplicity of the questions, and with the number of students who didn’t even try to come up with a question :(. I’m hoping, however, that this will inspire them to keep practicing. I explained that this skill will be so valuable to them on a job interview…..one, on the spot, intelligent question might be the thing that sets them apart from the other applicants!!

    With so much information available on the internet, I think our students get overwhelmed with content. They don’t know how to sift through the “sea of information” to pull out the important parts. If they can’t do this, there is no way they can ask an intelligent question!!

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