Talk About Teaching and Learning
February 25, 2014, Volume 60, No. 24
Teaching through Questions
How do we engage students with the complex, changing ideas at both the core and the edge of many fields, helping them move beyond preexisting ideas and explore competing accounts and evidence? One approach I use is to teach through questions—to structure some of my courses around a series of contestable issues that foster sustained dialogue. I pose questions that have more than one plausible answer, and I engage students in conversations that explore the alternatives and supporting evidence. Students and teachers who learn this way become disposed to ask good questions, listen carefully, provide evidence to support their claims and remain open to new possibilities. This encourages adaptability and is important preparation for a rapidly changing world.
When I teach introductory courses in education, for example, I intend for students to learn about important events and trends in the history of American education, central disputes over appropriate educational policies and basic accounts of how people learn. Instead of organizing a course around facts or literature reviews, I organize it around questions. Should educational systems allocate extra resources to help the disadvantaged, or should they spend extra to help talented, motivated students who will often contribute more to society? Should schools force students from heterogeneous linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds to suspend some of their habits and norms in order to assimilate to mainstream practices, or should schools allow students to segregate themselves along different educational pathways that conform to diverse communities’ beliefs and values? Students read about key historical events, recurring policy disputes, and established theories, but they use this subject matter to answer the larger questions.
Teaching through questions goes back to Socrates. In the early Platonic dialogues, Socrates addresses questions that have no established answer—about the nature of knowledge, virtue or beauty, for example—and explores the issues through open-ended conversation. But the pedagogical technique has benefits when teaching more established bodies of knowledge as well, in part because of the openness that it demands of both students and teachers. Socratic dialogue first shows students that their preexisting beliefs are wrong or incomplete. This realization encourages them to explore the subject matter more openly. Teaching through questions also requires teachers to remain open, genuinely listening to what students say and expecting new insights into familiar topics. The disposition toward openness is an important outcome of teaching with questions. In addition to learning about the subject matter, students and teachers become more disposed to consider alternative positions, listen carefully for new information and support their arguments with evidence. Such dispositions are important, as they enable students and teachers to do better scholarship and adapt their responses more deftly in rapidly changing environments.
Teaching with questions involves distinctive approaches to curriculum, preparation and instruction. I will discuss each of these in turn.
With respect to curriculum, teaching through questions requires subject matter that will support dialogue. Unambiguous subject matter with one best interpretation is better taught didactically, because known-answer questions cannot sustain a conversation. I develop curriculum by searching for essentially contestable questions like the following: Should an individual be expected to modify his or her behavior, overriding desires and inclinations, in order to conform to social constraints, or should society be organized so as to maximize the individual’s freedom to pursue those desires and inclinations? Does normative human development move from an egocentric stance focused on an individual’s perspectives and desires toward an ability to take the perspectives of others, or are humans inherently social such that they start out internalizing social tools and only later develop truly individual perspectives? Questions like these undergird fundamental insights and disputes in many fields. I select texts that raise such questions, and I juxtapose texts that take alternative positions. Both core and advanced courses can productively be organized around such questions.
When teachers prepare to teach through questions, they must identify the questions to ask in a given class. The Great Books Foundation (www.greatbooks.org) and education scholar Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon (Interpretive Discussion, Harvard Education Press, forthcoming 2014) provide a strategy. First, the teacher identifies a “basic question,” something he or she would like to know and is unsure about. This and all other questions must be genuine. They cannot be answerable simply by determining the facts. They cannot be evaluative questions, with answers depending on matters of taste or belief. They must be interpretive questions, which have more than one plausible answer because evidence exists to support alternative accounts. The teacher might prefer one answer, but s/he must find alternative answers plausible and must present the question as if it can be answered in more than one way. After identifying a basic question, the teacher develops a cluster of supporting interpretive questions. Answers to each of these questions contribute to answering the basic question. For example, I have used the basic question about whether an individual should modify his/her behavior to follow social norms or be free to pursue personal inclinations while teaching John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. My supporting questions included: Why is Dewey confident that students will want to participate in activities designed to teach the curriculum—won’t teachers sometimes have to choose between forcing students to engage the curriculum and allowing them to pursue other material they find genuinely engaging? If the goal of education is “continuous growth,” will that growth necessarily move toward the society’s preferences, or could it lead to irreconcilable positions?
The teacher opens discussion by asking the basic question. When students offer answers, the teacher encourages them to develop and defend their answers by using appropriate supporting questions. These questions often direct students to a passage in the text and ask them to explain potential evidence. If students do not themselves offer alternative interpretations or raise counter-evidence, the teacher models these behaviors for them.
The process of questioning has several goals. First, the teacher demonstrates that no answer is obviously correct, that there are contradictory pieces of evidence and alternative answers. Ideally, students offer competing answers on their own, and the teacher can involve students in a debate. If not, the teacher can defend an alternative account. Once students see that no obvious answer exists and that the teacher is not fishing for a preferred answer, they will often be motivated to explore the basic question more deeply. Second, the teacher models intellectual inquiry, the development of arguments and use of evidence. By asking students how their accounts can explain various evidence, the teacher encourages them to build careful arguments, listen to competing positions and consider both supporting and contradictory evidence. Third, the teacher and students listen carefully and remain open to new ideas and evidence. With a genuine question for which even the teacher lacks a definite answer, it is easier to listen openly for new information.
Asking good questions is harder than describing something we know, because it requires openness and improvised responses to unexpected views and evidence. Is it worth the effort? Sometimes we can reach our pedagogical goals through didactic instruction or coaching, but for some subject matter, contestable questions are more appropriate. Teaching through questions can help students learn subject matter, and it can also make them more reflective, open and adaptive—good dispositions for a rapidly changing world.
Stanton Wortham is the Judy & Howard Berkowitz Professor, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Graduate School of Education.
He received the School’s 2012 Excellence in Teaching Award.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.