Ask, Don’t Tell: the power of questions

Scientists are not trained to ask questions.

No, excuse me — scientists are absolutely trained to ask questions. In the lab. In the lab we are rabid information ferrets, and we will run up every trouserleg that the great wardrobe in the sky sees fit to provide.

Scientists who become lecturers are not trained to ask questions — at least, not questions of the classroom variety (remember, we’re preoccupied with being subject matter experts). We are trained to talk. And talk. Seriously, if you like to pontificate, you could do worse than become a scientist. It’s like our national sport or something.

And so, at the end of class, because we know we’re supposed to ask this, we ask any questions? and nobody says anything — instead, the entire class launches into a frenzied scramble for their bags and coats. Because “any questions?” is about the worst thing you could possibly ask, and my students know it, even if they don’t explicitly realise it.

And yet, in defiance of the mute, are-we-done-yet hordes, a small trickle of students invariably arrives afterwards to ask questions, or to share something interesting and relevant from their lives. And sometimes, it feels like more teaching and more learning happens in those little conversations than in the whole of the lecture preceding them.

I experienced for myself, and am trying hard not to propagate, the cycle of abuse that is didactic, teacher-led education. “Sit down and shut up” is a powerful message to impose on children — and it’s clearly a sticky one, because by the time my students arrive at university, that’s their expectation of what should happen in class1. Ironically, when students don’t want to interact in class, it’s actually even harder not to ask things like “any questions?”, because we do it out of habit, and stressful situations are great for dredging up our most-ingrained routines.

“If you want to improve any element of your life, learn how to ask better questions.” (via Paul at Brain Friendly Trainer).

I’m a huge fan of asking questions: they’re the fast track to learning (a) how interesting the other person is [seriously: people are fascinating] and (b) all the stuff they know that you don’t. And pretty much everyone likes talking about themselves and their thoughts, so asking questions is good social grease, too.

Asking great questions is also a brilliant habit to build in the classroom. It’s a skill I’ve been quite slow to develop, but I’m getting into it. So here are a few ways that I’ve tried to bring more questions into my classes:

I already posted about how I turned a two-hour lecture into a two-hour problem-based learning session. This was great for two reasons: firstly, I asked the students a ton of questions, which normally isn’t something we make much time for in lectures. Second, and even more exciting, was that the students then started asking their own questions. In front of 60 other students. Seriously, if I do nothing else of value this academic year, I’d almost be okay just with that. (Well, not really. But you know.)

I added media clips to my lectures as an excuse to ask concept checking questions. I showed my students Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk about the subjective experience of having a stroke. Watch it if you haven’t already — not only does she bring great insights from her knowledge of the brain (she’s a neuroscientist), but she also gives the talk with great humour and humanity. And instead of giving students multiple-choice questions afterwards (Did the stroke attack (A) the left (B) the right or (C) both hemispheres of Jill Bolte Taylor’s brain?), I asked much harder questions: What are the physical and emotional consequences of a left-hemispheric stroke? How do you see objects that appear in your left visual field? Outline the path taken by information through your brain. And so on. (I let them talk through it with a partner first, before I threw it open to the class. Small steps.)

For reasons outlined here, I changed the format of student presentations to Pecha Kucha (which I must write about soon, because it completely deserves its own post). And we went from from “mostly the student talking” to “the student talks for a while and then everyone pitches in with questions and discussion” — which, for the record, is a way better experience. For everyone. (I collected questionnaire data that says so, too.) Nothing makes a class interactive faster than getting students interested enough in the subject to ask each other questions.

I stopped telling and started asking. This wasn’t a class-specific intervention, just something I’ve consciously started trying to do over the last couple of years every time students get stuck: I answer their questions with questions of my own. It seems especially useful when working with very reticent students, but it’s also a handy tool when guiding students who are struggling to express their thoughts on paper: how do you know that? What evidence do you have? Why is that relevant?

What have I learned? Asking questions works. I’ve had really positive feedback from students about these sessions, and I know in my heart that I’m asking better questions and getting students to think more actively about the problems I’m setting. I’ve also learned that if your concentration lapses, even for a moment, it’s really hard not to reflexively ask “any questions?”, so deeply ingrained is the concept. (I guess the only solution to that is more practice.)

Yes, these activities are all things I should have been doing to begin with — but remember that didactic, scientific background, and show me a little mercy; breaking the cycle of abuse can take a while.

And now I want to add a whole session on “asking questions” to the teaching certificate.


Edit, one day after posting: One other thing that I learned, just today, is that sometimes it’s okay to ask if there are any [further] questions, if everyone is good and warmed up, and you have time to spare. Because they were, and we did – and students came up with some great questions. Stuff I had no idea about, but about which it was fun to speculate. But I think people really have to be in that headspace and comfortable with the idea of asking questions in class before this will work.

1 Okay, some of students’ reticence in class is also driven by not wanting to look like an idiot in front of their peers, in case the question is “a stupid one” … one day I might turn up at class wearing a t-shirt that says THERE ARE NO STUPID QUESTIONS — ONLY STUPID LECTURERS, but you just know that’s going to backfire in ways that are both immensely embarrassing and completely predictable.


Filed under my stuff

8 responses to “Ask, Don’t Tell: the power of questions

  1. And there’s another bonus too.

    This will be a slightly rambling comment because it’s a story. Skip elsewhere if you don’t like stories (or you’re not the internet’s reigning Queen of Attention).

    You know Learning Styles? That’s the pretty much discredited idea of learning what style your students learn in and then tailoring your teaching to their needs.

    It’s nonsense for two reasons, one important and one totally unimportant. First, the unimportant: there’s no science to back it up (and plenty to show it’s bunk). Second, the hugely important: it’s impossible to implement if you have more than, say, three students. Tailoring your teaching based on abstractions is bogus.

    Back in the days when I still believed in learning styles (of the VAK variety), one of the jobs I had was teaching foreign people to get into UK and US universities. And I was bored.

    I created little games to keep myself occupied. One of them was ‘go a whole term without hating any of the students’.

    There’s always students you don’t like. Okay, there’s always students that I don’t like. But for this one term, I resolved to love them all. Even Mr M, who I absolutely hated.

    Mr M was one of those passive aggressive learners who manages to be fawning and overly-critical at the same time, invading your personal space while at the same time giving every indication of distaste.

    To win the game, I ended up with Mr M in a classroom after hours hearing him tell me how they removed nearly a kilogram of glass from his body in the bombing attack that killed his grandparents. Apparently, he had a tough time adjusting after that.

    Anyhoo, all the touchy-feeliness had a wanted side-effect. With all the questions and the getting to know each other, everything they learned was pegged.

    Most of the things I said in the class were prefaced with statements like, “As Adam pointed out in his question,” or “Beata makes an interesting point, what does this actually mean …?”

    Simple stuff, but we were all using questions as a mnemonic tool as much as a discovery tool.

    I did read something about humans having a better memory for ‘who’ they learned something from rather than ‘where’. But this is the best I can do in regard to that:

    You can’t tailor your classes according to an abstraction like VAK. But you can tailor them according to likes and dislikes and personal stories. Without even trying, it’s a side-effect of aeons of evolution, I guess.

    Maybe it’s not questions that add value. But ‘turn-taking’ and conversations. Learning to ask questions is tough. Learning to take turns all the tougher.

    • I think you know that I’m not the Internet’s reigning Queen of Attention (nor am I ever likely to become ;) but I do dig this comment. Yeah, all of that. Often I don’t know names (because I see these 300 students maybe eight times in one year, in a variety of different contexts but almost never one-to-one), but I use visual and verbal references to previous questions as much as I can. Mnemonics, baby, yeah.

      I wish there was more room in lectures for people’s personal stories – those are the ones I get afterwards, chatting with individual students. Which makes me think that I should make a point of learning their names when I do that. (Perhaps it’s shocking that I don’t, but in context, it really doesn’t feel unusual or weird.) Quite often the details are so personal that it wouldn’t be suitable for mass consumption anyway, but the stories, the stories …

      And then of course some days we cheat, and use episodes of House to get the personal stories. Like today.

    • Sorry, half-assed comment before. Yeah, it’s pretty well-documented that we struggle to identify the source of information that has become knowledge. Wikipedia is somewhat inadequate on the topic and a lot of the literature looks at specific clinical conditions like ‘source amnesia’ in the elderly or brain-damaged. But in general, once knowledge is internalised, we often don’t bother to store its source, I guess because it’s low-priority information. If we have episodic memory that can give us context (who the person was, what they were like) then that must surely help. So intuitively, I like it, but I can’t quote you any research to support it right at the moment.

      Fork/soup simile FTW.

      Part of the thing with learning to take turns in conversation is that we don’t push metacognition nearly enough in education, and it’s easy for students to confuse imitation of the action with actual learning (see my previous comments on how students making presentations will often try to design their slides based on what they think they ought to look like, rather than in a manner that best communicates what they want to say).

  2. Great post, Chris. Although you write about the experience in the university lecture hall, there is an almost exact parallel to the corporate meeting room, where business presenters too often are not wired to ask questions of or engage their audience…for a variety of reasons, including the subject matter expert syndrome.


    • Kathy, my apologies for the delay in replying to your comment!

      I hadn’t really considered the corporate elements of this, and have only very limited experience of those myself, but it does ring true.

      The subject matter expertise issue is a really tricky one: in many ways it feels as though people want an expert to tell them how stuff really is (maybe a hangover from our evolutionary past when the alpha male’s rule was law?). Overcoming that and engaging our critical faculties is sometimes quite effortful. Hmm.

      Thanks for your thoughts! Again, sorry to be so slow replying.


  3. Can’t remember where I read this but one person related that his father always asked “Did you ask any good questions at school today?. Maybe we should all be asking this question of our children?
    We need to make sure people realise that asking questions is a strength and not a weakness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s