Building a Question-Friendly Environment
Trial lawyers are often told never to ask a question for which you do not already know the answer. That might be true in the courtroom, but in the classroom, that mentality is one of many things teachers and trainers do to discourage a question-friendly environment.
Intellectually, we all know the ability to ask questions is a critical component of learning. Practically, it does not take much to create an atmosphere that encourages refraining from questioning and answering.
- Are you really asking a question when at the end of your presentation you ask if there are any questions as you check your watch?
- Are you encouraging thinking when you call on someone for an answer the moment the question is out of your mouth?
- Are you encouraging future questioning when you fail to accept an answer because it is not the one for which you were looking?
- Are you evaluating responses in ways learners could interpret as “put-downs?”
- Do you only call on those ready to respond, or do you have a mechanism for involving every learner in the questioning process?
While our ideals say the only stupid question is the one not asked, our actions often do not promote an environment where none will fear asking anything – the question friendly learning place.
Such places do not exist only in textbooks. Anyone can build a question friendly atmosphere, but it is not easy and it takes practice. Here are three keys to getting there:
The definition of the verb accept is to receive with approval. Your demeanour in an instructional setting should be to receive responses without either undue praise or criticism. When you have established yourself as a model of acceptance, you can ask it of your students as they listen to the responses of their peers.
Accepting means receiving. It means acknowledging the responder in some positive way. Accepting means encouraging different answers to the question. Accepting means responding affirmatively, as in accepting an invitation.
Instructors searching for “right answers” rarely actively listen to the response. Instead, they listen for the answer that matches whatever they are looking for. Listening sometimes involves initiating a dialogue with the respondent to ensure you understand what it is he or she has said.
Listening for understanding sometimes requires restating what you believe the respondent was saying and asking the respondent for verification that yes, you did grasp the meaning of their response.
Allowing means permitting even challenging responses. Allowing means letting learners ask questions of each other. Allowing means letting learners ask questions of you. The way many of us handle the questioning process only allows a teacher as question-asker and learner as a question-answerer model. Allowing means role-reversal where all participants in the question-friendly environment ask and answer.
Today much is written about the need to shift from a teacher-centred environment to a student-centred environment. What about building a question-centred environment, where the focus is as much on the question as it is on the answer?
Is it worth the effort? Listen to what 12th-century French philosopher Peter Abelard had to say:
The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting, we are led to question, and by questioning, we arrive at the truth.