Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Power of the Question

Two recent articles reminded me of the power of good questions in the teaching-learning process. In a recent post at the Teaching Professor Blog, Dr. Maryellen Weimer, discusses the value of good questions to promote productive discussions. Below is an excerpt from her post:

"To realize the potential of a good question, we can’t forget that the power of a question to promote thinking happens in the interstice between the question and the answer—in that quiet space between the asking and answering. Most of us are in such a hurry that that space is short—typically less than 5 seconds, according to research."

In the July 14th, 2008, edition of Chemical and Engineering News, an editorial was published by Dr. Richard Zare of Stanford University about the power of the question. Below are a few paragraphs from this excellent editorial:

"The question is a little-understood element of human cognition. Nevertheless, some question is at the center of every scientific and technological advance, and fundamental questions underlie every humanistic quest to comprehend the world about us. The question is a central aspect of both learning and knowledge creation....Yet students often seem to value more the answer than the question. I think quite the opposite. The quest to answer a question is where the learning takes place, not the answer itself.Those are two of the 10 winning questions."

"The point is that questions propel the world of inquiry and you should never underestimate the power of a simple question in organizing human endeavors. When you ask a question, you develop ownership of the question, and this sense of ownership is nothing like what you get from an answer. Today, we are drowning in information. The real power comes from the question, which organizes knowledge and directs us to the unknown. Life is not about answers; it is about questions, and the quest to find solutions to stated problems."

The question plays a vital role in our legal system and in the ability of journalists and authors to get information about a variety of issues. In my opinion, the question is often taken for granted in education. In some of my courses, I ask students questions in which the answer can be yes, no or maybe. Although the answers seem quite simplistic, the process students have to use to analyze the questions is sometimes quite complex. Overall, not getting the correct answer to questions with seemingly simple answers can often be a signal to students that they do not truly understand a concept or understand it only at a superficial level.

On the other hand, the quotes above suggest that another important part of teaching is helping our students ask more and better questions. Please click COMMENTS below and let us know what you think!

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