The Right Questions


I am becoming more and more convinced that the central job of a teacher is to ask very good questions.   I suppose that this statement might agree with another over-simplification that I have oft used about teaching:  Teaching can be distilled into two very important duties:  1) Love the students, and 2) Hold them accountable.

Asking good questions, I think, falls into both categories.  We offer students love and respect by thinking carefully about exactly what questions are going to pique their curiosity – so we have to know those students well, consider their point of view, and engage with them in the most connected way possible.    But a good question, while being accessible and engaging, is also one that pushes the boundaries of the students – it holds them accountable by not allowing complacency.  It challenges either their preconceptions, or what they think that they can do, or both.
This is what I tell myself, at least, to reconcile both of my gross over-simplifications.

I recently heard (maybe from twitter?) that the best questions, or perhaps the most authentic, are the ones for which the teacher doesn’t know the answer.   I dig that.  Certainly, authentic questions from the world can provide plenty of fodder, but coming up with that sort of question can be brutally difficult – a difficulty I faced yesterday, casting about on the interweb, trying to generate the right questions to augment the current project about the presidential election.   In their work, I want students to know about energy policy, and the options that confront us as citizens right now.  When candidates talk about “alternative energy sources”, what are the implications?   How should the US invest its money?   What is viable, and what is not?

Before you get all up in my business, proffering the obvious challenge: “What about the students asking the questions?!”…let me just head that off, and say that I totally agree.  Students should ask questions that guide their work too, and giving them the opportunity to do so is perhaps even more important that any of the other guidelines I’ve offered so far.    Here is my take:  questions beget more questions.   If I offer something that gets them curious, it’s not like the curiosity just stops.   In asking the questions, I’m doing at least two things:  1) Starting a cascade of more questions, and 2) Modeling what it is to be a curious person who has interesting questions to offer.      Of course, questions aren’t the only thing that make people curious – I’ve seen many good questions come from students after they’ve been exposed to some interesting facts, or perhaps a discrepant event.

So…I figured I would hedge my bets today, and provide both some facts and (what I thought were) some good questions.    Turns out that both the facts and the 2 “Big Questions” provided lots of other questions, and had some students working for hours on something that they found interesting.   And the beautiful thing?  Answering those two “big questions” is optional.

Here are the facts and the questions we talked about today:

Turns out all of this was really just to get to instruction about the factor-label method.  Heh.

Thoughts?  I would love to hear about your experience engineering just the right questions for robust student work (if you have taught), or your experience as a student with a teacher who might have gotten questioning right.