March 13th- 19th is ‘Question Week’ in the USA, chosen because it is the week of Albert Einstein’s birthday, and promoted to encourage everyone to explore the power and potential of asking great questions. I’ve been on a soapbox for a while about how to formulate and choose fantastic questions as a means of understanding more about the world we are living in, the issues we face, the possibilities that lie ahead of us and the innovations we can bring about. So to follow the lead from the USA, I’d like to provoke a set of discussions about the art of questioning. Here is the first input – more will follow during Question Week.
Why emphasise questions?
Young children are walking question marks. They intuitively understand (and may drive adults to distraction) with the question “Why…yes... but why?” By the time they move into formal education and particularly adolescence, many young people lose the willingness to ask, perhaps because they want to avoid the perception they have asked a stupid question. Yet questions drive learning. They are a key tool in developing the thinking skills that support lifelong learning and employment success. Without the skill of asking questions we would be less likely to challenge assumptions, solve complex problems, innovate, empathise and achieve the satisfaction of finding out for ourselves. Asking important questions is a skill that can be practiced and developed.
Today’s ideas are questions that are designed to support technical and creative problem-solving.
The 5 Whys
Drill down to achieve a deeper level of understanding about an issue or problem by asking “Why?” five times in sequence. For example:
“This machine isn’t working properly.”
“Why isn’t it working properly?”
“There’s a broken part that hasn’t been replaced”
“Why hasn’t the part been replaced?”
“Because no-one knows how to do it properly”
“Why does no-one know how to do it?”
“Because we haven’t had training from the manufacturer or an engineer”
“Why haven’t you had training?”
“ I don’t know. Maybe because there hasn’t been time since they put the machines in. Or maybe because the boss thinks we know what we are doing.”
“Why would the boss think that?”
“Because we haven’t told him we need training. I’ll go and do that now”.
Sometimes this process will lead to new insights. It may lead to a dead-end. But new thoughts may be triggered in the process.
Other questions that support this type of technical problem solving develop a more analytical approach. Examples are:
“How do we know that this is a problem?”
“Why is it important that we solve it? Is the effort of solving it worth making?”
“How have we already tried to solve this? What did we learn about what doesn’t work?”
“At what point in a longer process is the problem emerging? What does this tell us?”
And one of my favourites in response to ”I don’t know how to do this....”
“What would someone who does know how to do this do?”
Questions to provoke new thinking
Open, challenging questions can be the start point for sparking creative insights. Rather than asking the ‘Why?’ questions that seek to establish a deeper level of understanding as part of a process of analysis and evaluation, creative thinking can be encouraged by a different type of questioning.
Here are some examples of questions that promote creative responses.
“What would happen if we did?” and “What would happen if we didn’t?”
“If you had no resource limitations or constraints, what would you do?”
(For youngsters…."What would Superman do?”)
“How would a three-year old go about solving this?”
“Where else in the world has a problem similar to this been solved? What could we learn from that?”
“What would a successful outcome look like?”
“How could we do this in a way we’ve never even considered before?”
“What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
“How could we change, adapt, re-organise or combine things we already do?”
“Are there any parallels in the natural world? What could we learn from these?”
Have fun with these questions - I'll be posting more types of questions during Question Week!
I am a designer of experiential learning tools, processes and activities: structured experiences that allow learners to draw their own learning from being involved in something that is intended to direct them to think.
In the words of Alexandra K. Trenfor, it is a method of supporting learning adopted by great teachers, who “show you where to look but don't tell you what to see.”
The experiential learning cycle involves four stages: experience, reflection, conceptualization and application. The words may differ but the learning process remains the same. In practical terms, this means having an experience, noticing what happens and thinking about it, making some personal sense and meaning from it and then using that new understanding to try out or test the learning in a new context. The cycle then repeats!
In my opinion, some trainers focus too much on the provision of the experience and not enough on the next three steps. The process of de-briefing is vital in ensuring that the cycle is completed and the learning is translated into practical actions or behavioural changes that can be integrated into future experience.
The questions that follow are all designed to raise the quality of the de-brief or review.
Questions for reviewing experience
I’ve observed many activity debriefs that begin with questions such as, “What went well?” and “What went badly?” or “How well did you work as a team?”
Why do you think, that I think, that these aren’t great questions? (There’s a question to get your head around!)
To me, these questions are not focused enough, they are asked at the wrong stage in the learning cycle and they require judgments to be made in advance of pure, reflective observation.
So, here are some questions that I hope you will find more useful.
The Reflection stage of the review
All of these questions are designed to focus on pure observation and recall. They ask for neutral, evidence based description of things that may be significant at a later stage.
The Conceptualization stage of the review
Questions at this stage of the cycle are designed to focus on interpretation, understanding and the creation of personal meaning. Whilst they should be context specific, here are examples of the type of probing questions I would use.
The Application stage of the review
Questions here are intended to help the learner to make the transition back into their own working or community environments and to think about how they can use their learning to improve performance or personal effectiveness and satisfaction. Examples are:
I hope you enjoy experimenting with questions like these and enhancing the quality of your reviewing. The next posting will focus on questions that support a coaching process. Hope to see you again soon!
Ann Alder, Training Director