2 Leadership Interventions

2.2 Asking Questions

Supposing a tutor were to open discussion in the following way. 'Do you think the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand was intended as a precipitating factor for World War I, even though none of the schemers, if schemers they were, could have had any notion of the consequences in terms of both the extent of hostilities and the degree of suffering that resulted?' Pause. Ten seconds' silence. 'Let me put it another way. On the evidence we have, was the War a typical example of intentional cause in international conflict? Or was World War II a better one?' Pause. Another ten seconds' silence. 'Did nobody read the papers I asked you to look at last week?' What, if anything, went wrong here? Were the questions too complicated? Did the tutor wait long enough for an answer? What sort of answer did s/he want? This imaginary dialogue (based on two real transcripts) is intended to demonstrate at least one of the common traps in asking questions: posing a multi-part, highly-academic and leading question at the start of a session, not waiting long enough for a response and then rephrasing it as another question. We all do this sort of thing from time to time and we usually wish we could 'unask' the question rather than becoming more deeply enmeshed through our own wish to appear clever. Yet having got ourselves into this fix perhaps we could learn from this tutor by waiting a little longer for a response, reflecting for a moment on the way the question came out, and possibly checking with students: 'Do you want me to rephrase that?' or 'Was that question too complex/obscure/involved to answer?' Questions serve at least three purposes in discussion: o to test the students' knowledge; o to clarify information; o to stimulate students into expressing ideas and constructing arguments. Very often the same question can satisfy all these purposes, though that will depend on the group climate and any underlying message in the question.

Questions serve one further purpose: they allow the tutor, or anyone else in the group, to make a link between what they and the others are thinking. The choice of question will depend very much on when it is put and the purpose of the discussion. If, however, we take the above three purposes of questioning we can look at the different types of questions which relate to each and leave the decision as to their practical application to the reader.

Testing Questions

These will mainly begin with words like 'what', 'how', 'where', 'when', 'which' and will therefore be essentially convergent as they are intended to elicit specific information. They are concerned: with checking knowledge: 'What is the best catalyst for...?' 'Which critics have described Godot as a comedy?' with comprehension: 'How do you justify that ...?' with application: 'How do you predict that would work in ...?' 'What relevance does that have in ...?' with analysis: 'What qualities do these have in common?' 'What would happen if ...?' with synthesis: 'How does that connect with ...?' 'Could you summarise what we've discussed so far?' and with evaluation: 'Which do you think is best?' 'How do you feel about that?'

Clarifying Questions

Whether a question is defined as a clarifying or as an elaborating one will often depend on the expression on the questioner's face and what has preceded the question. However these sorts of questions could be used to clarify: 'Can you rephrase that?' 'What did you mean by ...?' 'Can you give me an example?' Where the last question fails you might follow it up with: 'Might this be an example of..?' and provide one of your own.

Elaborating Questions

Elaborating questions are essentially a gentler way of inquiring than the other questions we have discussed. They are concerned with helping students express themselves more fully, both in thought and feeling: 'Can you tell me more?' 'Could you elaborate on that?' 'Uh-huh, what else?' 'How does that make you feel?' Two devices, reflecting and selective reflecting, while not strictly a form of question, have an important place here. For example: Student: 'I've been thinking that, if you take the phenomenological argument to its limits then you end up with nobody helping others to make sense of their own world. There would be no point in teaching, for a start.' Tutor: 'No point in teaching.' (Reflecting) or Tutor: 'Take the argument to its limits.' (Selective Reflecting) It is essential that they are said in a neutral tone as though you were ruminating over the particular phrase. It is easy to see how, with a little inflexion, these 'reflections' could sound like quite threatening questions. There are also questions which are intended to rouse the curiosity or the imagination. For example: 'I wonder if that really would happen?' 'If you were in that position, what would you do?' Often questions like these are best kept ambiguous, though this could be very threatening for a new group. If the discussion seems have lost any sense of personal relevance to the students, questions like the following may help: 'How did it seem to you?' or 'What did you like about it?' is much more acceptable as a starter than: 'What is your assessment of Y's Theory?' Clearly it is not in the best interest of discussion that you spend most of the time asking questions: this would quickly focus the interaction on you. The more students can competently take over the task of asking each other questions the more responsibility they will be taking for their own learning. They can best learn this if you can model However, it is quite properly the tutor's job to explore and probe further into students' understanding of issues.

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