In a time when everybody seems to have an opinion on what education should be: (here; or here; or here), very simple and direct methods of “impacting” students’ minds can be lost in the fray. On this issue of subtleties being lost in favor of sweeping generalizations, legislative reform, and non-stop funding issues, we are beginning a brief series on small adjustments in a teacher’s classroom and personal philosophy which can effectively improve the education which a student receives. Today, we will focus on the art of asking the right questions.
What is a question? And more difficultly, what makes for a good question and how do better questions make for better educations? The first question is answered worst by the dictionary (dictionary.com). It suggests, firstly, that a question is an interrogative statement. Interrogative comes from the two Latin words inter (between) and rogo (I ask)–not much help there. Let us, therefore, be more philosophical in our definition: to ask a question is to seek information on a subject or event one is interested in. But why exactly is “asking a question” better for the instruction of a student than simply lecturing or directing a student’s acquisition of knowledge? The answer lies precisely in the last part of the definition–in the fact that the student is interested in what he or she asks after. Now, the skeptical teacher will say, “But this is all well and good, but I don’t have time to be answering questions all day–I have material to get through.” Abrupt and assuming tone aside, our teacher has missed a crucial aspect of teaching: one is there, in the classroom, precisely to answer questions all day, but perhaps even more importantly, a teacher is there to guide the students’ questions. What this means is that a teacher can “get through” his or her material while also increasing student engagement by facilitating and answering questions related to and on the material that he or she is teaching (covering).
So, what exactly makes a good question? A good question is, for one, on topic or related to a topic being lectured on or discussed, and more importantly, a good question can come from the teacher or the student. Second, a good question asks for deeper thinking about the issues at stake in a given situation or raises new and unexpected issues causing further critical inquiry (more questions). The third aspect of a good question is that it offers the opportunity, at least in a “humanities” class, for a personal connection to the text (material). For example, If a teacher is teaching about the death of Patroklos, from Book XVI of Homer’s Iliad, then the question might arise, “who was at fault for the death of Patroklos?”. Certainly, the person at fault for the death of Patroklos is not truly asked by the text–Achilleus just assumed Hektor was because Hektor dealt the killing blow to Patroklos in battle. The situation is deeper than this, however, and a good question gets at this.
For one, it was Nestor who first convinced Patroklos to wear the armor of Achilleus in Book XI, and Achilleus himself gave Patroklos the armor to wear rather than entering the battle himself. That said, Hektor was only Patroklos’ “third slayer” as Patroklos himself affirms, because in fact Euphorbos, a strong young Trojan, was the one first to hit Patroklos in the back with a spear, and Apollo then, covered in a mist, slapped Patroklos on the back: striking him dumb, breaking his chest-plate, and knocking his helmet off. So, without even considering any of the larger implications of the question, one might observe three characters, two mortal and one divine, implicated in the death–with Achilleus and Nestor both serving as somewhat more remote actors in the death. Each and every one of the preceding characters could make the claim that he were directly involved in the death, and in some way caused it: Achilleus shared his armor, and in this way shared his destiny. Nestor gave the idea to share Achilleus’ destiny in the first place to the impressionable young man, serving as something of a first cause. Hektor, Euphorbos, and Apollo rounded out the equation acting as efficient and material causes (or their spears) of the death of Patroklos.
Beyond the fact that asking after the “cause” of Patroklos’ death satisfies the three aspects of a “good question” above, there is one more aspect of a good question which the query above fulfills and which has not yet been mentioned: it is subversive. What exactly does it mean for a question to subvert? Let us again look to the Latin: sub means “under”, and verso means “to turn”, so “to turn under”, or by extension, “to overthrow”. What, exactly, is a subversive question then overthrowing? A subversive question overthrows not only initial and unconsidered opinions on a subject, but it itself invites alternative or unique interpretations of a situation which have not yet been interpreted or considered at all. The implication and weight of this statement is that a subversive question causes thought where thought has not yet been, and where thought otherwise never would have gone.
But why, then, does asking questions which provoke new thought lead to a better education? The fact is that subversive questions engage students on two important levels: (1) students are invited to share in thoughts and ideas which are not yet settled and formed into dead and inert knowledge. They then instead get to be part of the “knowledge creating” process, rather than the knowledge receiving process which most teachers are resigned to serving them. This not only prepares students for leadership; it prepares them for life. This allows students to see how liquid knowledge truly is, and it is liberating and empowering for them to realize that knowledge does not simply come down from on high, but is rather subject to their own thinking as well. Students, therefore, learn that they have equal rights to all other people (other thinkers) in terms of using their minds. But does this, then, make democracy by nature subversive? Or does being subversive just make one therefore more fit for a democracy? One will simply have to keep asking questions and seeking their answers to find out.
The second way subversive questions engage students is: (2) they teach students that true knowledge does not come from blindly accepting what one is told, but by questioning what one hears and sees. This means that a student who simply accepts a fact as true has learned a fact, or an opinion on a fact. A student who questions this fact, however, and seeks after understanding gains something far more valuable from the experience. For in asking a question, one seeks depth of understanding–the cause of a thing, the inner workings, its constituent parts, its function–Such information about a situation, person, or concept, however, remains locked away from the minds of students until they ask a subversive question, until they learn to ask the most powerful question: “Why?” When a student learns this skill, and only when he or she learns this, does he or she really have the tool(s) necessary to seek understanding and deeper and true knowledge of whatever he or she seeks to learn. This, and not blind acceptance of what is said, is the foundation of a democratic, rich, and good education. Therefore, good questions are the foundations of good educations which are the foundations of democracy (or the good society).