As a facilitator I’ve been interested in the skill of questioning for some time. The right question can change a “presentation” into a more active learning environment for students and help increase their engagement. Because I see questioning as one of the lifelong skills of learning how to be a better facilitator, I try to read about it when I can (as well as practice the skill in my own teaching and facilitation work). Last week I finished reading the book “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas” by Warren Berger, and I thought I’d share some of the book’s highlights.
Who gets to ask questions?
Thinking about who gets to ask questions – and making it safe to ask them – in learning situations is important. Berger talks about more traditional learning environments where the teacher sometimes creates a situation where they are the ones who only can ask questions, not the other way around. When the teacher sees themselves as the all-knowing “expert” they may not want students to question their authority on a subject. But creating space for our students to ask questions can be quite powerful – for them and for us.
Berger gives examples in the book about times when “non-experts” or “outsiders” asked questions – sometimes leading to breakthrough innovations in the business world – saying that they are “often better at questioning than experts” (p. 74). So we must devise many opportunities for our students to ask questions, to help them be active participants in their own learning and because they may help other students be able to see the content of our course through new eyes. A best case situation would be when our students’ questions allow us to deepen our own insights about the topic at hand.
A side story related to this in a non-teaching environment: I recently attended a meeting on a project that had been somewhat stalled for a couple of months. A team member suggested that we all spend time thinking about the questions that we needed to have answered to propel our work forward. We all took time to generate questions – one per sticky note – and put them up on a whiteboard. We were able to theme and group many of them. It drove a productive agenda for that particular meeting and opened up our discussion in fantastic new ways – perhaps because we were all given space to contribute the questions that were important to us.
What skills are involved in questioning?
There are many skills involved with questioning and Berger talks about one of them as being comfortable with “not knowing” or the “Zen principle known as shoshin, or beginner’s mind” (p. 81). Related to this, in human-centred design we talk about the mindset of being comfortable with ambiguity. If we go into problem-solving – thinking we know all the answers – we won’t leave ourselves opportunities to discover new and wonderful possibilities. Question-asking helps us to maintain the beginner’s mind for a while, perhaps to find more innovative solutions to the problem at hand. Gathering a diverse group of people to create questions together also can be a big help.
Berger also mentions the skills of divergent and convergent thinking and their relationship to questioning. These are concepts that I address in the course I teach on workplace innovation so I wholeheartedly agree. In my facilitation work in particular I have begun to structure group facilitation processes in my agendas around divergent and convergent thinking (concepts which are also detailed in another excellent book, “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making” by Sam Kaner et al.) paying attention to which processes I can use to open up and broaden a group’s thinking, and which I can use to start winnowing down the possibilities into more concrete ideas for the group to take forward.
Being aware of and intentional with using divergent thinking processes and methods helps a group stay more innovative with possibilities before we make decisions (converge) too quickly and just generally try to get on with things. Berger notes that Dan Ariely at the Harvard Business Review said that company leaders often prefer to be supplied with answers over questions “because answers allow us to take action, while questions mean that we need to keep thinking.” (p. 160). Sticking with questions for a longer period of time may feel more uncomfortable and perhaps take more time, but it just might help us go in places that we wouldn’t have gone if we had starting providing answers too soon.
In a classroom situation as facilitators of learning, creating space where we stay with questions for a while just might help our students “discover” more concepts and ideas for themselves – those ‘aha’ moments we all strive to create for our participants – instead of us just telling them everything they need to know.
The book also mentions metacognition as an important skill in questioning, that is, thinking about our own thinking. Thinking about why we ask certain questions or our underlying assumptions about the questions we ask is crucial. This is also a great skill while facilitating. If we can be aware of the moments when we are not asking questions, it can help us to turn things around and begin to ask them, to create more active learning environments for our students.
But I like what Berger says in the book, that it’s helpful not only to think about if we are asking questions at all but the nature of the questions we ask. Questions can take our students in various directions, so thinking hard (and ideally in advance) about which questions we want to ask and how we want to ask them a good idea. For example, in my undergraduate degree in history we asked a lot of questions such as Who wrote this? Whose point of view is missing from this work? and uncovered that often the historical artifacts we were studying were written by white men of privilege. If we only had asked What is the author’s point of view? we would have been missing a very important conversation.
Just like I’m used to with human-centred design processes, Berger advocates asking ‘How might we…?’ questions and talks about three types of questions: Why, What If (this is where the How might we…’ question fits), and How questions.
How might we ask better questions?
This book, not surprisingly, is rife with questions and in fact has an index of questions in the back as well as a regular index. Berger has encouraged me even more to think about how I might ask better questions and has given me some strategies to do so.
In short, if you are in the field of teaching and learning – or frankly in any field whatsoever – you will benefit from reading this book. I look forward to continuing my journey on how to ask those ‘beautiful’ questions.
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