Ask the Useful Questions

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This week The Chronicle of Higher Education draws me to itself with an article regarding the famine in East Africa.  Millions of people are suffering, it says--suffering in a variety of extreme ways.  When suffering is so wide-spread, efforts for relief become all the more daunting.  'What is the solution?' we clamor to each other, 'What can be done?'

Often, getting to the solution involves asking more questions--questions like "Who is at fault?" or "What are the consequences?"  The trouble with these types of questions, the authors suggest however, is that they are only 'a part of the story'.  They say that--instead--we need to 'identify the conditions that underpin poverty' so that we might understand why these populations are so vulnerable, and why they are so affected when famine strikes.

As I read, it strikes me that the trouble with questions such as "Who is at fault" or "What are the consequences" is that--though they are important--they are not the most useful questions.  Remaining on the surface of the issue, they do not go deep enough. As the authors suggest, we need questions that will get to the root of the problem instead of looking at what is merely right in front of us.         

Asking the more useful questions helps us to re-structure the system at its roots, so that tragedy on such a grand scale cannot occur again.

Right now, I imagine that you are saying "Excuse me, isn't this blog supposed to be about teaching?", and my response to you is:

It is.

Today, in your classroom, you will face situations that ask you to ask questions.  What route of questioning will you choose to take?

Will you remain on the surface, asking questions that deal with what is right in front of you?

Or, will you go deeper, looking for the most useful question to get at the root?

Surface questions deal with today, maybe the semester; useful questions deal in long-term change.

The essence of a useful question is encouragement toward and guidance into the places that really matter.  Useful questions move your students further than where they can see on their own to go.  Useful questions drive them deeper, make them think, make them consider implications and consequences. Useful questions provide them opportunity to live in freedom, beyond the surface. 

The more I think about the role of useful questions in my own life and the lives around me, the more I think that they are rooted in the phenomenology of caring.  In Philosophy of Education, Nel Noddings (2007) writes that the end goal of caring is to 'relieve a burden, activate a dream, share a joy, or clear up a confusion' (p. 72).  A useful question is made of the same goal.

If we position ourselves to ask useful questions of our students, we will position them to think deeper, see farther, and reach further as they move out beyond our classrooms. 

We will position them to get to the roots of famine, we will position them to care.

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