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The Power of Questions

· training,Education,learning

As someone involved in training and teaching I am always amazed in the power a good question can have on students… and the range of questions that can be used to spark a transformational experience. It is important that all educators, parents, youth workers, coaches and trainers have a good understanding of why questions are so vital and how they can be utilised to get the best out of people.

Asking questions versus telling

The first major hurdle in becoming a good questioner is realising the impact that asking has compared to telling. Let us imagine that a parent is ‘teaching’ a child to make a sandwich for the first time. The child has eaten many sandwiches before and now they are ready to take that step towards independence. There is always a temptation to think that a teacher or guide must instruct others to help them learn – it seems to be the natural reaction in this situation. So what we would likely see happen is the adult telling the child what to do every step of the way. Almost like reading instructions out loud: ‘Wash your hands, then get the bread, then butter it… etc’. This will produce a successful sandwich, and the child will learn to make it. But, it will not have the same long term impact as using an asking approach:

‘What do you think you will have to do first?’

‘What equipment might you need?’

‘How will you put the filling in the bread?’

Asking questions to coach someone through a task is more effective than telling them.

Using questions such as these will act as small prompts that allow the child to use their previous knowledge to take some ownership of the learning experience. If there comes a point where the learner has no idea then it would become appropriate for the guide / mentor to take on a more instructive role – and then revert back to questions as soon as possible. This method is far more effective than the telling model because it allows people to generate their own process for completing something, which is far more memorable and meaningful than living out someone else’s instructions.

Why don't we ask more often?

The two scenarios above have a slightly different approach with a massively big difference in impact – why then, do we not use questioning more often? I think the key reason for this is time. The time taken to tell someone something and for them to perform it is much shorter than the time needed for someone to work through a concept / problem themselves and arrive at answer. Furthermore, the time needed increases significantly when you scale up the number of people being taught – for example in a UK school class which averages around 30 children. When one adult has to get 30 children to meet an objective (make a sandwich, learn to divide, write a newspaper article) then telling allows those children to work to a similar and shorter time frame than if they all had to discover the process within themselves at individual rates. This means that a culture of telling is bred out of habit. It is very important to note here that I do not think this is right – I only note that it does happen. However, I also I know there are many individual teachers that try to use more investigative ways of learning. Unfortunately they work in a system that is driven by time deadlines and concrete outputs rather than processes. This makes telling an easy habit to fall into.

How can we question more?

To be able to use a questioning approach more often takes skill and practice. Not only in knowing the kinds of questions to use but also in allowing time for learners to think, passing ownership to the learner, knowing when it is appropriate to tell and breaking down questions into manageable parts when needed. All of these things take a long time to get the hang of and will depend very much on the individuals that you are working with. Below, I want to cover some ideas to think about when planning the questions you may ask to help others learn and develop.

Open and closed questions

This is a classic and usually obvious starting point when thinking about types of questions. Basically speaking, closed questions gain limited, one word or yes/no responses, whilst open questions allow for more interpretative, explanatory and detailed answers. Closed questions can be good to check for initial knowledge (Have you made a sandwich before? When did you last make a sandwich?) but generally speaking open questions are better because they allow the learner to express their ideas more freely and openly. (How do you make a sandwich?)

Chunking your questions

Questions, information and themes can be considered as large chunks or small chunks. People like to process information at different sizes and so the question will need to fit an appropriate sized chunk. E.g:

‘How can you change society for the better?’ - larger chunk

‘How can you change yourself for the better?’ – medium chunk

‘How can you change your physical health for the better?’ – smaller chunk

While all three talk about change you can see how the breadth of scope for each question is different. And please note that there are even larger and smaller chunks that could be addressed here. A good questioner will be able to pitch the chunk at the right level for the audience and also be able to ‘chunk up’ or ‘chunk down’ if the original question was not the appropriate size.

There are different types of question; open question, closed question, knowledge question, comprehension question, application question, analysis question, synthesis question, application question. Bloom's Taxonomy.
Types of answer

Questions can be asking for different types of information – some of which are more helpful to long term learning. A well circulated and accepted model is Bloom’s Taxonomy:

  • Knowledge – ask for the recall of facts
  • Comprehension – check understanding of facts and concepts in the learners own words
  • Application – being able to use facts or concepts for another purpose
  • Analysis – being able to understand the individual components of a piece of learning and how they fit together, being able to separate relevant and irrelevant data
  • Synthesis – collect related concepts, facts and ideas to link them together for a purpose
  • Evaluation – make judgements about the concepts, ideas and facts

Each of these categories is useful in different circumstances and so the questioner has to be aware of the balance of question types they use. Asking ‘What is a knife?’ (knowledge) serves a very different learning purpose to the question; ‘What would be the best way to get peanut putter onto this bread?’ (synthesis). A good guide / teacher / mentor will pick a range of question types at different points of the learning to ensure a well rounded learning experience.

The problem with 'why' questions

Our common question words are: Who, what, when, where, why, how, do, can and may. They are often linked to certain types of answer too – so ‘can you X?’ comes with a yes/no answer. Where as ‘how do you X?’ is a more open response about the process. Out of all these question starters the most problematic can be WHY. Asking somebody ‘why’ in regards to their own behaviour can bring about feelings of being judged and automatically lead to a defensive answer. E.g. Why did you put butter on first? May lead to a nervous response of ‘I thought I was supposed to / that’s what everyone else does / is that not right?’ It leads people to justify their actions. In contrast, ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions tend to be less intrusive: How did you decide to put the butter on first? This focuses more on the logical process and so detaches from personal blame.

Obviously there is a time and a place for ‘why’ questions: Why do you think the writer used this word? Why might it be important to wash your hands before cooking? But using WHY questions that focus on a person’s actions should be avoided where possible.

Final thoughts

Next time you are in a situation where you are tempted to instruct somebody, take pause. If you have the time, patience and some confidence in risk taking then try to use a different approach to see what the outcome is. Use a series of open questions to help the learner talk through the event themselves. Ask small chunks to start with then chunk up as they become more confident. Try to vary the types of question you ask so that learners focus on a mixture of information, judgements and analytic elements of the task. I hope that you will see just how powerful questions can be at cementing a learning experience and making it more meaningful to individuals.

Image credits:
Brian Yap, 2012
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