Monday, August 2, 2021

Who asks the questions?


At the start of every week-long Exeter Humanities Institute conference, on a Sunday night in June, English teacher Becky Moore reads a definition of student-centered discussion that includes this phrase: “students ask the questions.” That comes after a sample Harkness class led by another English teacher, Ralph Sneeden. I happened to be counting up the questions during that session one time, and found that Ralph, asked 9 of the 15 questions that were posed during the 36-minute session.

During one EHI conference I gave my “Teaching Students How to Frame Useful Questions” seminar (aka, QFT workshop) on a Monday afternoon, and it seemed to inspire many of the discussion leaders of the sessions during the rest of the week to begin by getting participants to frame questions to launch the discussions. Those sessions did not go very well. They lacked focus and did not produce shared understanding of the documents everyone had read.

Perhaps the central problem of discussion-based teaching—what Exeter refers to as Harkness—is how to get a group of people to think collectively without succumbing to groupthink. Paradoxically, we want our students to be independent thinkers who are good at working in a group and developing consensus or shared understandings. The teacher’s greatest tool for fostering the latter, is to frame questions that will get a group intellectually invested in the same line of inquiry. If a discussion begins with 12 different people each framing their own question, that is impossible, at least within the 50-minute class periods we have at my school. The time it takes to look at the questions and decide which ones to ask first, doesn’t leave enough time to meaningfully engage in answering the question and processing the assigned readings.

I still think that teaching students to ask their own question is a worthy goal. I just don’t think that it’s a viable daily practice in a Harkness history class. Here’s what I do do:

  • Get meta: I talk to my students about how I frame questions. The main message is that it takes a lot of work, thought, revision—like writing. Laypersons think that you just blurt out the first question that pops into your mind. It ain’t like that! You’ve got to be strategic; to game plan a series of questions before choosing the one more likely to generate the most fruitful discussion.  And years of practice makes you better at this.
  • Encourage students to ask question as the class unfolds.
  • Find a way to organize a class around question-framing, as in the QFT workshop on occasion.
  • Get students to develop their own paper prompts instead of always giving them a specific question to consider for their papers.

Further Reading: Here are the notes for my workshop on question development, which is derived from an educator’s seminar I attended with the Right Question Institute in Boston. At the bottom of this page are links to several more resources related to asking questions.

See also, Chapter 3 of Susan Caine, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking: “When Collaboration Kills Creativity: The Rise of the New Groupthink and the Power of Working Alone.” She quotes Einstein, who said: “In order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.”