Asking meaningful questions is a cornerstone of learning and living because it's a practice we use every day. In fact, the majority of our success in life depends on asking the best questions followed by making the best decisions.
In education, the benefits of asking questions are equally immeasurable. All learning begins with questions, and how we both question and model questioning for our learners defines their quality of learning. Without providing meaningful questions, learning is lost. But what's more important—the question or the answer? And if learning is the answer, what is the question?
In the Beginning
Long ago, a big part of classroom education was rewarding correct answers and punishing wrong ones. Obviously that's a generalization, but it was a common mindset nevertheless. Learning was more linear and structured then, and having the right answers was considered a measure of successful learning.
This is not meant to vilify accuracy; quite the contrary. Knowing the basics of the content and understanding it fully still counts. It's just that as education and the students it teaches have evolved, we've witnessed a shift in emphasis from being right to being curious.
We've come to realize that a learner's ability to question meaningfully and think critically and creatively is more crucial to success in a changing world than simply proclaiming right answers. The truth is it's preferable to focus on asking the best questions we can ask.
Terry Heick talks about this in his article Why Questions Are More Important Than Answers. He supports the idea that perfecting our questioning is a more valuable practice than chasing after correctness:
"Questioning is the art of learning. Learning to ask important questions is the best evidence of understanding there is, far surpassing the temporary endorphins of a correct answer.”
We now foster understanding by asking questions that make learning interesting and engaging to our learners. As such, we focus on the questions more than the answers. It's certainly true that a question is pointless without an answer having been provided. However, when we focus on asking better questions we tend to get better answers.
The result is that "being right" takes a back seat to be thoughtful and introspective, and seeking important solutions to significant problems. In other words, fix the question and the answer will follow.
What's In a Question?
When asking meaningful questions, our goal is to do more than simply achieve learning. Among other things, we also want to inspire curiosity and connect our questioning to what learners find relevant and engaging. We also want to give rise to increasingly specific questions.
Learning is an answer to a need or to what springs from our curiosity, or from a deep personal connection. Our questions, posed correctly, reveal the pathways to get our learners there.
So what's in a question? In a word, possibilities.
One of the 10 Shifts of Practice we use to define future-focused learning is essential and herding questions. Basically this means that asking meaningful questions leads to deeper thinking, and answers lead to more questions and more in-depth inquiry. We explore possibility and potential in ourselves and in the world around us using such questions.
For example, would philosophy exist if we hadn't asked, “What is real? Is there a meaning to life? If so, what is it?” Consider the multitude of questions and disciplines that have arisen from that curiosity. How much more understanding of ourselves and our world do we have now because of that inquiry? That's the power of asking meaningful questions.
Why Asking Meaningful Questions Matters
1. It provides insight into what our learners think and know already. When we ask meaningful questions, we want learners to verbalize what they know and what their assumptions are about our questions. This generates interest in the topic because students become personally involved when their thinking and opinions are constructively challenged.
2. It reveals personal connections which become opportunities to personalize learning. Personalized learning happens when learning becomes strengthened by a relevant connection between the task and the learner. We accomplish this by using questions connecting to our curriculum, pedagogy, and the learning environment itself. In addition, we personalize learning by also asking meaningful questions about the endless possibilities that appear in front of us every day for creating informal learning opportunities or teachable moments.
3. It encourages collaboration and conversation. When working in groups, tackling meaningful questions becomes the foundation of learning. As discoveries give rise to deeper questioning, the team unity strengthens as more challenges are answered. Excitement ensues and learning happens.
4. It encourages creative self-expression. We all express ourselves in unique ways, and our learners are no different. Responding to relevant and engaging questioning gives them the opportunity to share the best of themselves.
5. It encourages deep self-reflection: The right questions need to be asked even after the work is done. As a result, this fosters healthy questioning habits for a lifetime. As an example, here is a list of self-reflective questions your learners can debrief with after projects and assignments are finished.
6. It helps us rethink assumptions and consider alternatives. Everybody makes assumptions, but reconsidering them in healthy productive ways is a real eye-opener. Asking meaningful questions about what we think we know helps our minds expand and usher in new ways of thinking.
7. It leads to big ideas. Look around you and you'll realize everything you see began with one thing—an idea. In fact, the greatest advancements in history would never have happened had we not questioned things before they happened.
In addition to all this, asking meaningful questions can:
- boost self-confidence
- establish trust
- exercise your memory
- develop oral communication skills
- protect us from making mistakes
- encourage a growth mindset
- make work more productive
- make solutions more effective
- help us make better choices/decisions
In conclusion, asking meaningful questions gives our learners permission to be curious and creative. They get to think and question in a way that helps them become better thinkers. They also get to strive for deeper knowledge and more meaningful answers. Best of all, they receive ample opportunities to grow in mind, body, and spirit.