The Art of Asking Excellent Questions
As many educators understand, authentic learning is highly dependent upon asking our students the right questions at the most appropriate times. As deep and meaningful as questions should be, we cannot negate the importance of surface ‘yes or no’ questions when particular moments in learning call for those spontaneous types of questions. However, in general, questioning should take place on multiple levels with every one of our students if we are going to help them to be their best.
I recently came across a podcast on iTunes called, Dean Bokhari’s Meaningful Show. In the first episode of Dean’s show that I listened to, he had a guest on his podcast named Michael Bunhay Stainer. The two of them discussed, The Coaching Habit, a book written by Michael. The main theme of the show was to deconstruct the art of questioning in order to identify how best to ask questions regardless of what type of work it is that we do.
Dean made a great point in regards to the way he has always looked at the role of questioning in the work that he does. It was a very simple metaphor, in my opinion, but a powerful one as it made me truly think about how important it is to continue to unlock curiosity and wonder in our students straight across the curriculum. He explained how he likes to think of and see ‘QUEST’ in the word QUESTION and makes the point that all questions should promote and foster a quest of some sort.
Most people would associate a quest with some type of adventure, journey, or pilgimmage that allows us to uncover some sort of truth along the way. What a great way to look at the questions that we ask our students. Our ultimate goal, as educators, should be to continue to get our students wanting to find out the answers— to be completely absorbed in the process of determining certain truths, on their own, through the learning experiences we help to design in our classes.
Often times the quest to ask great questions forces us into a state of tension as we cannot simply continue to roll out the same activities and lessons year in and year out in our programs. I like to use golf as a nice metaphor to illustrate the point I am trying to make in regards to the art of asking great questions. We can play the same golf course 3 times a week for years on end, but the reality is that every time we play the course, we never experience the course or our games in the same fashion. This is a perfect example for how we need to deliver the learning that takes place every day in the subject areas that we teach.
If you were a golf caddy, you’d constantly have to gauge the wind, elevation, temperature, distance, obstacles standing in the way of your golfer and the direction he needs to hit the ball, and the general conditions of the course, such as how wet or dry it is. You would then help your golfer decide upon the best way to attack each shot on the course. But, ultimately it is the golfer that eventually needs to determine what type of shot to hit then proceed to hit that shot based on the information he has been given by the caddy. Questioning and learning are no different!
An advanced or professional golfer doesn’t need the caddy to teach him how to hit the actual shot as they will have already mastered the skill of striking a golf ball. However, for average to beginner level golfers, the caddy will often need to step in and instruct on the fundamental basics of the golf swing. Consider this to be more of a direct instructional approach to teaching. Even when using the direct instructional model of teaching, we still need to ask GREAT questions to our students.
Excellent teaching and questioning is a carbon copy of the caddy-golfer relationship that takes place on the course. Both are on a quest for information that can help them move forward in the most successful ways possible. These quests are intertwined in a common purpose with journeys that constantly change, unlock curiosity, wonder and excellence, but most importantly unleash the vast potential that exists within both teacher and student.
My advice is to think long and hard about the art of asking great questions and to consider this an important process in teaching and learning— a QUEST that brings out the best in both you and your students. Thanks for reading!
Empower, Empower, Empower!
Don’t let yourself do it! At the end of every school year there are traps and time bombs all around us. The closing of each school year often brings with it a sense of tip toeing across a minefield as there is potential danger in every direction we take.
We do not have to allow ourselves to fall into this trap. It’s up to us with how we choose to respond.
I want to share a great story I heard a couple of years ago in a Ted Talk given by Charles Hazlewood, a composer, broadcaster, and musical director. During his Ted Talk, Charles shares a story that holds enormous significance and is an excellent metaphor for the need to stay motivated, passionate, and to ensure that we always empower ourselves and others around us.
A couple centuries ago, there was a Hungarian prince named Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. The prince came from an extremely powerful family that had ruled a kingdom in a certain region of Europe for decades. Being powerful brought numerous advantages to the prince’s life. As he had a love of music, the family employed a prominant and prolific Austrian composer, Joseph Haydn, to be of service to the prince. Along with Haydn came his 16 orchestral musicians and their main responsiblity was to provide music for the prince whenever he wished. The families of the orchestral musicians were allowed to live on the grounds of Esterhazy’s palace.
Esterhazy also owned a summer palace that he loved to visit several times throughout the year and whenever the prince decided it was time to go to this palace, he demanded that Haydn and the orchestral musicians accompany him. Along with them always came their families on these long trips.
One day, out of the blue, Prince Esterhazy decided that he could no longer tolerate the families of the orchestral musicians living on the palace grounds. He made the decision to send them off to live on their own far away. This caused great distress as the orchestral musicians would be separated from their loved ones for months at a time.
Despite numerous attempts by Haydn and others to change the mind of Esterhazy, the prince was unbending and simply refused to listen.
The Farewell Symphony
Haydn devised a clever plan to prick at the consciousness of the prince and did so by creating a beautiful score called the ‘Farewell Symphony’.
In the darkness of the summer night, Haydn and his orchestral musicians performed the score for Esterhazy. Imagine a lit candle placed in front of each musician as they played the score for the prince. Haydn and his team played on, but as they came to the final part of the score, each group of musicians; the woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings within the orchestra had a task.
Picture in your mind the woodwind group standing up and playing their final piece, quietly letting their music fade away to completion. As they completed their part, they bent over, blew their candle out and walked away into the darkness. Brass and percussion followed suit, completing their parts then bending over to blow their candle out and walk away into the darkness of the night. In the end, only one violinist remained. Upon completing her part, the last candle was blown out and she herself walked away into the darkness. The music had literally whithered away and died. Where there is no light, there is no music.
The Farewell Symphony had struck at the core of Esterhazy’s consciousness, moving him to realize that his decision to send the families of the orchestral musicians away had caused great pain. He immediately reversed his decision and the families and musicians were reunited. The music played on and all were once again happy.
Charles Hazlewood tells this story to illustrate a very important point. Regardless of what we do in life we need to keep our candles of inspiration, hope and passion lit. We are also responsible for helping to keep the candles of those around us lit. This is accomplished through choosing thoughts, actions, words, and behavior that are empowering in nature.
There is no greater place for this than within the walls of our schools. Whether you are a teacher, administrator, or student, the culture that is created within a school must be firmly rooted in the seeds of empowerment. And it's mindfulness that plays a pivotal role in providing all stakeholders in an organization the necessary tools to help empower themselves and others around them.
Even with a culture of mindfulness and empowerment, there will still be disagreements, tension, conflict, and difficult moments. As my wife, Neila Steele, often shares during her workshops and presentations, mindfulness allows us to respond in more caring and compassionate ways, rather than reacting in a knee jerk fashion, lashing out unnecessarily at those around us.
The end of the school year does not have to be an excuse for tempers to flare and patience wearing so thin that relationships within the school disintegrate and fall apart. We are all in control of how we choose to respond. Give yourself the quiet time and reflective space needed to better understand that with each day comes challenge, but embedded in our journeys are golden opportunities to empower ourselves and those around us. We cannot let our own light or the light of others whither away and die. We all have equal responsibility in ensuring that this does not happen and to be much more aware of the thoughts, actions, words, and behaviour that we choose to put into action. Thanks for reading. I've added a link to the Farewell Symphony below if you are interested in listening to it.
KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.