Careful questioning: Nurture student voice and unlimited learning
I was once in a college literature class where the professor confidently said, “I assume we are all of Judeo-Christian background here, so…” She then went on to apply this filter to the analysis of the stories and poems we had recently read, and she was coming up with interpretations that differed from my own. Do you think I raised my hand to let her know that her assumption meant I was left in the dark about all the analogies she was now using to teach me? Today I would have, but not then. Raised in a militant-atheist household, I had only started learning about various religions, and I felt instantly stupid. In retrospect, I probably had something unique to contribute, especially in interpreting the works by authors who were also not of Judeo-Christian backgrounds. Instead, I struggled silently, and this was just another case where a teacher was telling students what to think.
One of the things I often tell new teachers is don’t tell students what to think. Teach them to think, but not what to think. Instead, help them build critical thinking skills, the ability to recognize logical fallacies, and the habit of questioning everything – including their own current beliefs. Try on different filters. Invite others to describe their perspective. Be open.
And when a kid starts to go a direction you think is wrong – ALL WRONG – don’t panic. For one thing, they might be right. And regardless, it is part of their journey. Just keep asking questions and encouraging them to do the same.
Sounds simple enough, but those questions! Teachers sure know how to load a question to get a specific answer, don’t they? This isn’t just a teacher thing; it is a human thing to do. Begging the question or loading a question with assumptions is a very normal, but limiting, approach to communication. Let’s look at a simple example from daily life:
Question loaded with suggestion: Do you want to go to Location A? (In scenario where many other options would be just as possible)
Question loaded with Begging the Question: Since you like Location A, when are you going there?
Pure Question: Where do you want to go?
None of the above seems like a problem in most circumstances, but let’s use this simple scenario to understand how loaded questioning works.
The question loaded with a suggestion requires that the person answering either agrees to go along with the suggestion or be put in the position of rejecting it in order to answer with another option. Think that isn’t a big deal? What if the location was instead a person, and what if the person was standing in the room? Also, people can feel uncomfortable having to reject an idea offered to them, especially if they’re students in a classroom responding to a suggestion made by a teacher.
The question that begs another question in the above example makes the assumption that the person feels a certain way about something. What if this is an incorrect assumption? What if the person doesn’t really like that location, or perhaps just doesn’t want to be there today? Now the person has to wrestle with countering an assumption plus rejecting a suggestion.
The pure question allows for the greatest freedom for the person doing the answering. It also requires the most work from that person in coming up with an answer! If you wanted to help that person a little, offering several suggestions that end with a “or anywhere else you want to go” statement would be the best.
Again, the above scenarios seem rather benign, but we can apply the pattern to other situations. Think of how the same types of questioning can be applied to politics, views on social justice issues, or career exploration topics. What happens when we do this in interpersonal communication? In that literature class, the professor made assumptions about the religions of the students, and even applied her religious beliefs to the interpretation of works by others who also didn’t share her religion. Her questions then assumed that this same religious and cultural filter would always be applied. It was as valid a filter as any, but not the only one. So many assumptions, suggestions, and limitations resulted in a poor learning experience for at least this one student.
I have witnessed several scenarios like the one above, and not always with religion. Political affiliation, socioeconomic perspectives, cultural assumptions, and other personally-important yet limiting filters can come into play. Sometimes it is less personal; the limitations are simply based on the limited experiences and knowledge of the teacher. And everybody is limited!
By modeling careful questioning, and recognizing when a question is loaded, teachers are helping students think critically and openly about topics. They are expanding the horizons beyond their own perspectives. We should never limit students to that which we believe or think we understand. Not only is this pedagogically unsound, it is unethical.
To learn more about teaching students how to question, check out MindShift’s post: Why It’s Imperative to Teach How to Question as the Ultimate Survival Skill