Ask the Right Questions

Students struggle with asking questions.  This has been true as long as I have been teaching – about 150 years now –  and I think it might be getting a bit worse.  Take this scene:

A sweet little student walks up to me, hands me her paper, and asks, “Is this okay?”

I am a highly trained professional, so I immediately held the paper up to my ear.  I informed the student that her paper was not breathing, and I immediately started CPR. 

She got the point.  This made her stop and think about the question she really wanted me to answer, which was she was concerned about her thesis statement being short and it seemed too easy.  Was it missing something?  Now that is a question for which there is an answer. I walked her through it, and she emerged with the confidence that she really had included everything she needed. 

It is not that I don’t like answering questions – I love it.  It is just that some questions don’t have an answer that is relevant to the topic. 

I’ve worked very diligently to teach my students over the years that if they ask me if their paper is good or okay, then I am not sure exactly what they are asking.  Does it taste good?  Is the handwriting good?  Is the paper itself in good shape?  Is it psychologically balanced?  Is it physically healthy?  What are you really asking me?

So many times, when I stop the student asking the vague question and ask them what they really want to know, the explanation is usually followed by, “but that is what I meant.”  Then ask the question you really wanted answered. 

For the most part, they are starting to figure it out.  They are starting to ask better questions…or at least not asking the ones I can’t answer.  And the discussions that follow the questions make me a better teacher and them students with clearer understanding. 

We, as adults, need the same skills that the students need to develop.  I’ve done this sometimes myself, asked a vague question, expected the person who was answering it to be a mind reader and answer what I really wanted to know, and then used that lack of clear information as an excuse to do nothing.  How can I blame someone else for my lack of action if I don’t ask for the right information to succeed? 

So ask the question you really want answered. Be very specific.  Ask about details. You can make so much more positive progress with the exact information you need.   You also might help teach someone along the way. 


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