The Right Question

“She communicates largely by asking questions, not personal questions about his life or past history but questions about his opinions on topics ranging from the weather to the state of the world.” Paul Auster

Some people are questioners and others are not. To my knowledge the source of these differences has not been investigated. Leon Neyfakb writes about one teachers examination of this issue in his Boston Globe article, “Are We Asking the Right Questions?” I might title it “Are We Asking Questions At All?”

His article begins by describing a teenage classroom situation where the students have been reading Camus’ The Plague. The teacher asks them to generate as many questions about the novel as possible. Not to worry about answers, but simply the questions. Dan Rothstein, co-founder of the Right Question Institute in Cambridge is observing all this in the back of the classroom

Rothstein believes current the current educational curriculum has neglected to teach young children how to ask good questions. He says, “learning how to ask questions should be considered as critical as learning how to read, write, and do basic math.”

His Institute has a Blog, programs in education, health care, training programs in voter engagement and something the Institute refers to as Microdemocracy which it describes as “individuals using essential democratic skills to participate in decisions make in their ordinary encounters with public institutions.” One assumes that learning how to ask good questions is an essential part of all these programs.

Rothstein and his colleague Luz Santana have recently published their manifesto-of-sorts, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. It makes two simple arguments:

All students should and can learn to formulate their own questions
All educators can easily teach the skill as part of their regular practice

What is a right question? It is hard to tell from either Neyfakb’s article or the material on the Institute’s website. It is suggested that choosing the right question involves a trade-off between clarity and depth. But what distinguishes a right from a wrong trade-off?

In response to an invitation to write the Institute should we wish to know more, I wrote to seek clarification of what, in fact, a “right question” is. The Institute gives itself that name. Surely it means something. Is it simply a good question? Why not then, The Good Question Institute? I’ve never had a reply.

While asking questions is critically important, one never knows what the right one is until you obtain an answer. For example, if your question solves an important problem, moves the issue forward, leads to further questions that bring you closer to a solution, etc. then it is the right one for that time.

Whether you can change an unquestioning person into a questioning one remains on open question. Starting with teenagers is surely worth the effort, but I think individuals at any age could benefit from such instruction.

It is asking questions, showing curiosity, and inquiring genuinely that is important to me and to Rothstein. He has put his conviction into action. I praise him for that.


Stefanie said...

I wonder if starting with teenagers is too late? Small children are naturally curious and ask all kinds of questions. I think adults tend to get tired of the questions because there are so many they don't have answers to and discourage kids from asking them. So maybe instead of the kids, the focus should be on the adults?

Richard Katzev said...

Great point. The adult parents are crucial. Indeed, there is a very active group of psychologists who argue that if you want to change a child, a teenager, especially "difficult" ones,etc., the most effective approach is to re-train the parents, not the children.


barbara harshav said...

The mother of Isidore Rabi, the physicist, would ask him when he came home from school everyday: Did you ask any good questions today?
Or as I tell my students in my translation seminar: My job is to raise questions, not to answer them.

Richard Katzev said...

Hi Barbara:

Any answer just leads to another question anyway.

“Asking questions is both the secret of science and the essence of the Talmud, the dialectic forming character of the Jewish people.” “The act of learning is the central pillar or backbone of Judaism.” Rabbi Adin Steinsalz

Thanks for your comment.

Ciao from Italy,