Are You Asking The Right Questions?

by Caroline Potter

caroline potterEarlier this month, I attended a conference called “Students are Not Asking Questions,” organized by the Cambridge-based, Right Question Institute (RQI). Chiefly a professional development conference for educators, it aimed to address the steep decline in question-asking as children mature and advance in school.

So, why do children stop asking questions?  In part, traditional pedagogy and standardized tests convince teachers and students that education means you “know the right answer.”  Which child is the best, the smartest, the most successful? Why, Little Sally, who has the most right answers! Beyond teachers and tests, the simple binary of right and wrong delivers a delectable dose of praise and confidence when a student comes out on the right side.  What is the capital of France? Paris! Which mammal lays eggs?  A platypus!  (You are so smart, Sally!)

Sally’s right answers have merit, but research reveals endless benefits for students who know more than right answers —  students who follow their natural curiosity, exploring, observing, and questioning who, what, why, when, where, how, and what happens if I do this?

Some years ago, RQI developed a “Question Formulation Technique” that continues to mesmerize me.  Its steps include: producing as many questions as possible, categorizing them, prioritizing them, determining a course of action to approach one or several, then finally reflecting on the process, what it brought to the surface, and how.  I encourage you to learn more about this process by visiting their site and checking out their publications.

As a high school English teacher, I can already see specific ways to adopt the Question Formulation Technique next year.  As this week’s blog writer though, I would like to model how powerful the Question Formulation Technique’s first step alone can be: Produce as many questions as possible in response to your established Question Focus.

My Question Focus for this exercise?  Mikveh (of course!)

And a brief splash of questions to start:

1). Can mikveh be for everyone?

2). What happens when a mikveh decides it will be for everyone?

3). What happens when an ancient ritual is redefined?

4). Why do people immerse today?

5). Why don’t people immerse today?

6). Can the waters heal?

7). How could the waters heal?

8). Can the waters transform?

9). How could the waters transform?

10). What does it feel like to become a Jew?

11). How has the Jewish community changed since Mayyim Hayyim opened in its doors 2004?

12). Why do we need Mayyim Hayyim?

Asking questions is much more powerful than knowing the right answer ever could be. Questions let us explore, observe, dwell in uncertainty.  They bring us into dialogue with others.  They lead us to research.  They lead us to wonder. They lead us to discover even more beautiful questions.

I invite you to ponder my own list of questions.  I invite you to ask your own — all you need is a topic, image, idea, or belief that has meaning for you.

Caroline Potter is a high school teacher in Boston and a member of Temple Sinai in Brookline.  For the last three summers she has been volunteering at Mayyim Hayyim, where she asks many questions.



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