On Asking the Questions That Support the Learning

posted Mar 18, 2015, 1:50 PM by peter richmond   [ updated Mar 26, 2015, 8:38 AM by Margaret Riel ]

            You're at the opening reception for a friend's show at an art gallery, looking at one of the paintings when someone sidles up and looks at the same canvas.  You nod at each other, and return to examining the work.

            What happens next? Maybe you ask him what he thinks of the painting. Maybe she [keeping it gender neutral lol] gives an answer that intrigues you, then asks for your own opinion. Maybe your answer prompts a nod of agreement: "I see your point."

            Next? Maybe mutual introductions...followed by an exchange of questions: How do you know Jane? What do you do for a living? What other artists do you like? Within a few minutes, you've each learned some new things about the art world, as well as your new acquaintance, and his or her own fields of interest. Perhaps you discover that you have several things in common, and schedule time to have lunch.

            How and why did you each make a new friend? As James Paul Gee would have it, you found an "affinity space" -- a metaphoric place where "people affiliate with others based on shared interests, activities and goals."

            And how did you create the space? By inquiry, which had been prompted by the most natural of human instincts: curiosity.

            Now, consider what would have happened if you'd asked the stranger what she thought about Jane's painting, and in return , what you got was a one-way lecture about art, art theory, color, perspective and the use of brushstrokes. You'd have politely backed away, bored to tears...and no one would have learned anything - other than the obvious: that one-way discourse is no way of learning about anything.

            Or, try this scenario: You've attended a reading by an author, and the host at the bookstore opens the floor up for questions. A half hour later, you've all gained new insight into the author's world, her craft, his process, and his or her methods of research. How did it happen? Because questions were asked, in the spirit of both "learning" and natural social interaction.

            Now, consider what would have happened if, instead of asking for questions, the host had asked for "comments," and several members of the audience had stood up and told the author and the audience what they thought of the book, in no uncertain terms.

            A dud of an evening!

            We're social animals. We want to learn, and we learn by asking questions. That's why I have always asked so many of them, in my one-on-one interviews with students in college for the last two years, and ninth-graders for three years before that. The only way to gain "evidence of what the student is thinking," in Gee's terms, is to ask for permission to find a window into the place where they're doing that thinking, and then using that knowledge to create a more effective learning environment for the student.

            And that's just a start. If the questions are the right ones, and the person being interviewed has respect for the questioner, then a new plateau might be achieved, and when the person being interviewed is a student, that student has the opportunity to know that the instructor genuinely cares about the student's well being.

There’s something mighty important I learned as I conducted extensive research for books about two of the most professional successful coaches in history— Phil Jackson, whose 11 National Basketball Association championships represent the highest total in history, and John Madden, who retired from the National Football League with the highest winning percentage in football history.

            What did the old school, folksy Madden have in common with Jackson, a scholar of Buddha, Ouspensky, Jesus Christ and Jack Kerouac? The interviews. Whenever a new player joined their team, they made it a habit to get to know everything they could about each and every player on their roster: their lives, their styles of learning, their passions and their troubles.

Listen to what journeyman basketball player Jud Buechler, who made the final cut on Jackson's Chicago Bulls roster one summer after playing for three other teams, told me. “Phil called me in for our first meeting. I’m scared to death. I was ready for him to criticize my foot speed, or my jumping ability. And his first question was: `How’s (wife) Lindsay? Settling in?’

            “I thought to myself, `Excuse me?’ Then he says, `Have you found a place? Is she making friends?’ I was blown away. None of the coaches I’d ever played for even knew I was married, or cared." Buechler? Became a favorite Jackson player, and helped him win another championship that year, playing the best basketball of his career

            And Madden and his Raiders? “I liked them,” Madden told me - as if this way of coaching wouldn’t be self-evident, a given. “I liked all my players. I made a point of talking to every player every day. I’d walk up and down the locker room and talk to them as they’d come in, going into the training room, because I liked them. They’re people."

            The result? To a man, those Raiders told me they would have gone to war for Madden -- well, figuratively, anyway.

             And for those of us conducting action research with students, I think there’s much worth considering here. Does every student respond well to being asked if they'd be comfortable sitting down with you to get to know each other better?  Nope. But most do -- if, in my experience, after the first several classes of a semester, they sense that you are honestly committed to them. If they believe you're doing it for their benefit, they'll be comfortable -- and, sometimes, eager.

            Is every instructor comfortable with playing the role of questioner? Obviously not. Some of us aren't wired to be social. Some of us never ask a question after the author reads from her book. But then, going to an author's reading is a no-fault recreation. What we do in the classroom has more significant (and satisfying, hopefully) implications. And it's been my experience, over five years in classrooms, that no student doesn't appreciate being treated as a person, which would logically hold true whatever the content.

            The ground-rules for my own sessions? The same protocol I'd use as part of any action-research data collection plan: careful observation, reflection, a new action. But in this case, the most meaningful data will emerge if the questioner uses the same methodology he'd use at the art gallery: the rules of social interaction or data within a relational context.

            Are my own methods of interviewing/interaction reflective of my many years of experience as a professional journalist? Of course, but, then again, only to a degree; Journalists, like action researchers, need to build upon a base of curiosity. We all know how to question if we can only learn to listen.

            First and foremost I try to find a comfort zone. If the student wants to talk about family -- as most do -- then it's a chat about what's going on at home, or what their childhood was like. If they want to talk about their sports team, that's where you head. If they want to offer opinions on how the class might improve, I'm always all in, because it's always constructive criticism: the cycle of action research.

            It's not always as easygoing as my 90-minute talk with Jeanette a few weeks ago, when this ever-smiling first-year student plopped down on a chair and said, "Where do I start?

“At the beginning,” I said -- and the floodgates opened. She took me from the day her house burned to the ground when she was nine, through the phase when she was bullied -- an experience that strengthened her -- right up to the last few minutes, when she grabbed her phone, called her dad and asked him to send her those photos of his grandfather, an engineer, from the top of the George Washington Bridge...and holding the base of the radio tower atop the Empire State Building - a quarter-mile above West 34th Street. She grinned as she showed me the shot, which her dad had sent over instantly.

            Jeanette's pride in her family, and her first-hand account of her gradual ascension to confident, happy student gave me insights that will not only help us find our "affinity space," but help me find out the optimum way to support her learning.

            Equally valuable is the practical insight to be gained vis a vis particular learning styles -- as when George, a wonderfully talented[C1]  and curious kid, confided, "I never liked learning history from someone talking for a half hour and you have to take notes, I take terrible notes."

            Sometimes you have to wait to see what s/he wants to talk about, like when I asked Bethany about her dad. "Dad? Hm," she said, pausing for effect. "Hasn't been in my life that much. I don't even know his name...I get a few phone calls every two to three years. The last time I spoke to him was the day before I was coming here. He said, `I'm getting you a car,' and I said, `Right. That's going to make up for every birthday you missed."  This, then, was a student carrying a burden. And now I knew that our affinity space would be very different from my space with Jeanette.

            But I knew that we'd have one. In the outside world, everyone has their own affinity space with everyone else, and so why should it be any different with the students from whom we learn so much? They, like John Madden's players, are people, first and foremost. I try to never forget it. And they seem to appreciate it.