• Questioning and Posing Problems

Successful people don't only ask questions, they search for questions to ask. They are curious and they deliberately craft questions designed to gather the sort of information required.  This Habit is about asking questions, rather than answering them.

There are many different reasons to ask questions. Sometimes we need a specific answer. Other times we might want to open a discussion. Questions can be used direct or lead people to certain conclusions. Being skilled in this Habit means you are good at asking the sort of questions that will generate the data you need.

In Victoria, where I live, we recently had a Work Place Safety campaign to encourage apprentences and other new employees to ask questions. I was dumbfounded that we had to have a national educational campaign about what would seem such a basic skill. None-the-less, these two graphic videos (1 & 2) illustrate how some young people are going into workplaces without having developed an effective habit of questioning and posing problems.

In Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind Art Costa describes 5 characteristics of Powerful Questions. For people designing questions to stimulate thoughtful responses and inquiry these 5 characteristics are a wonderful guide. Costa suggests that powerful questions have the following qualities:

Plural: the question asks for multiple responses. So instead of asking "why did this happen?" we ask "what are the reasons this happened?"  By introducing a plural to the question it invites the person or group being asked to give more open response with more than one answer.

Tenative: by including tentative words like "might" or "could" into a question it introduces an element of exploration and removes the feeling of the answer being right or wrong. For example asking "why might this have happened" is much more open and inviting than the question "why did this happen" which suggests the person has to give a right or wrong answer.

Invitational Stem: this is a subtle but powerful tool in questioning and simply invites the individual to respond to a question. By asking "why do you think this happened?" instead of "why did this happen?" you engage the listener directly. You are much more likely to get a response when using an invitational stem than without.

Naming the Cognition: By labeling and identifying the type of cognition that is required in a question we help to focus the cognition of the person answering the question. Good questioners weave into their questions the cognitive verbs that tell the person answering the question the type of cognition required. For exampe some cognitive verbs might include: reflect, analyse, predict, evaluate, list, describe, or generate.

Positive Presupposition. A positive presuposition is a phrase in the question that makes a statement that assumes the person answering the question will be able to answer it. This is very powerful. For example, the simple change from "why did this happen?" to "what reasons do you have as to why this happened" builds in the presupposition that the person being asked does in deed have some reasons.

For more on Powerful Questions see chapter 8 of Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind.

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