I hope the Good Question Game blog series has motivated some thinking and wondering. The impact of asking good and meaningful questions is not my idea. Our ability to relate to one another and especially to who we consider "the other," depends wholly on our humble, sincere, and committed curiosity to understand the range of experiences of each other.
What have you noticed about your own habit of asking questions? Do you get to the point when it is appropriate to do so? In what ways do you engage a child, your friend, a partner, a co-worker, a cashier -- a person with differing moral and political beliefs? Have you ever said, "could you share a bit about what is important to you, and why?"
My point in blogging, in 10 parts, about good and right questions is just this -- we make sense and meaning of our lives by asking questions of ourselves, of the people we meet and of the systems in our lives. What is a more important point skill to manifesting meaning?
Children are natural and not self-conscious about asking questions, most of the time. I count three main contexts when children do not ask questions.
1. When they are not allowed or do not feel safe.
2. When they are not interested or do not care.
3. When they do not know what they need to know, therefore ask.
Children test out and test me on what I am trying to guide them to experience or learn. I am not an academic teacher. I teach all manners of personal, ethical, and spiritual development by inviting children to engage in ideas and activities that will help them grow. They are successfully engaging when they are asking questions about what they do not know, or understand -- yet want to. In my experience, this dramatically differs from engaging adults. And because adults have developed habits that often preclude being curious and vulnerable to expressing uncertainty, children do not see models and do not receive encouragement of this important, gateway skill.
Children and teens have so many adults in their life telling them what to do, and I am witness to very concerning limitations in their potential for growth and independence. Privileged children (and teens) can be over-managed by their parents to such a startling degree, their skill for many common sense and common courtesy tasks are often lower than underprivileged peers. Apathy can be the biggest hurdle.
My recent leadership has been for children and teens who are immigrants and refugees. They have strong skills of mutual support and caring. I see how confusing and misleading their lives can be as they live by their cultural and family identities, while some of the worst American culture makes it's way into their habits.
Privileged or underprivileged, American born or far-away born, I always say the same thing -- do you have any questions? What are your questions? What do you need to know to meet your goals? Who are the people you admire? What kind of support do you have in your life? Do you know what junk food is? What kind of job would you like to work towards?
These questions are hard for kids to live in to if the adults around them aren't asking the same kinds of questions. We can ask the age-old question, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" and by now we know there are new angles and several caveats to that. At the very least we can model practicality.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
What are the steps you will need to take?
Who are your supporters?
What's the very next thing you should be doing or thinking about?
My weekend was spent listening to the radio and trying to absorb research and wisdom* about childhood. I believe it will inform my research and reflection about my big question:
How can I support my local community's generation of intercultural kids?
Thinkin' and wonderin',
*Paula Fass's, The End of American Childhood
A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child
Eric Weiner's, Geography of Genius: The Geography of Genius
A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley
Telling a group, "we're going to play a game" is a great way to enact an experience that both suspends disbelief and reveals something simple and true. After just five minutes, nearly 50 questions were generated to a quote that many would consider a metaphor.
On this day of the summer school program we paused our round of the The Good Question Game (The Right Question Formulation Technique) and looked upon our amazing list of questions.
The next step of the RQFT is for the group to improve the list of questions by reviewing them. The scribe writes a "C" or an "O" next to each question to indicate whether it is considered an open-ended or closed-ended question. The group is asked to change at least one closed-ended question into an open-ended question and at least one open-ended question into a closed-ended question. Like, "was there food?" could become "what kinds of foods were served on the ship?" This group didn't have to change many ?s from O to C or C to O. Food or no food? That's what they wanted to know. "Why did they come on different ships?" That's what they wanted to know.
"Did everyone get along?" No.
But also, "What was going on in the boat?" Now that takes time to answer, which is the whole point. It requires imagination to create a scenario in our mind, to see who is in that picture. It takes humility and curiosity to connect with others to get their story. It takes patience. It takes commitment.
Improving a list of questions, as a group, is a discretionary, deliberative process. There is an implicit commitment to consensus when there is a greater sense of purpose to the refinement of questions. In this context, everyone present was united in their direct experience of being in the same boat (place) having arrived on different ships (countries). One of them would be counting the different "ships" that they came from (around 10).
Using the Right Question Formulation Technique, prompts individuals and/or small groups to prioritize the list of improved questions. Participants are asked to notice where, in the sequence of the list of questions, their priority questions came from -- the beginning? the middle? the end? What might this mean, when in the process a group generates their most important questions?
With a short list of priority questions in hand, individuals hold their own, personalized curriculum in hand, whether in the classroom, boardroom, town square. The next time (and the next time) the group convenes, the process of discovery unfolds through active sharing. Motivation flows freely when each person feels a part of a whole and when there is no race to a right answer.
On this day of the summer school program, I could tell I was with a crowd whose heads might be in the clouds but would also be in the seats. They might be ideologizing but they would also be remembering. They could be theorizing but they would also be commentating first for themselves and then for others.
If The Good Question Game is competitive, it is a race against time in order to get a powerful capture of the shared wonder in the room.
It is a non-hierarchical and generative experience. This is not merely a feel-good, procedural point. It is a vital commentary and description of a dynamic, shared learning process.
If we want to protect the open mind from attack, then we have to keep out the yardstick of self-justifying rightness. That begins with ourselves. The mastery of the open mind begins in the humble reverence of not knowing.
Participants in a group -- any group -- walk away from the experience with tendrils of curiosity thirsty for answers. The children will go in search of water.
On this day of the summer school program, they would be remembering and quickly thinking, "what's next?"
On this day of the summer school program, we set sail on a round of the Good Question Game. My expectations were surpassed for what I imagined 40 middle and high schoolers (and several adult helpers and teachers) could do together.
I've seen geese fly in formation and marveled. I have rarely witnessed people coming together and intuitively creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
We set the stopwatch to 5 minutes. Just before we started, I had some last-second words of encouragement:
"Don't worry if you feel like you don't get it.
You will get ideas from each other.
If you think you are already a good question asker,
but don't have a question about this quote,
All it takes is one person to be curious,
to ask a sincere question --
You'll get ideas!
some questions might make us laugh,
but we shouldn't ask questions as a joke.
We're in this together.
On this day of the summer school program, in which we were about to set sail on a round of the Good Question Game, the first question was called out....
The Good Question Game revolves around what is called a question focus statement -- the QFocus. This component of the right question formulation technique requires the teacher/leader to give thorough consideration when introducing a topic or idea. Sometimes the QFocus may be introducing the next unit of study for students in their their social studies class, for example. The QFocus could be a picture or painting that prompts a group to ask themselves, "what might this be about?" The QFocus could be a passage from sacred text, a statistic, a quote. It could be a very traditional start:
The American Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865.
If you're in seventh grade and this QFocus statement were being presented to your class, you likely don't already know all about this civil war. You might know what a war is and you might know that 1861 is a long time ago. When I was that age, I remember a classroom teacher writing the facts on the chalkboard. Later, we would be tested on our recall, possibly our understanding. It's possible the class started with, "who knows who fought in this Civil War? Who can tell me what this war was about?" And so would have begun that kind of game with hand raising, maybe some praise. The First-to-Raise-their-Hand Game is the competitive approach that leaves many behind.
The American Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865.
In a classroom where the RQFT is used, rules have been explained, discussed, open and closed-ended questions reviewed. And then for timed period, students generate as many questions as possible. As many questions as possible. Quantity is prioritized over quality. (This part is brain and social science and cannot be discussed quickly here.) The timed period of a group generating as many questions about the QFocus statement as possible creates an open, creative, nonjudgmental, level field of learning.
The Good Question Game (aka the Right Question Formulation Technique), is not a process to establish who knows what and certainly who knows the most. It is a deeply thoughtful and powerful experience to establish what each and all does not know. As such, something important is tapped. We're talking about a group/class reflecting on and asking questions of and about a big idea. This is collaboration in a very pure form -- enhancing the capacity of each other by sharing and hearing what we do not know.
What follows can be amazing. What follows is a process and an experience in which the participants have created a shared map to discovery. As such, there is individual and collective engagement from the beginning.
As a leadership coach and community minister, I have used the RQFT with young adults who are experiencing homelessness, connecting their paths of self-discovery and success with the skill of asking essential questions along the way. I've used it in college freshmen classrooms as they studied identity, sense of place, and writing. I've used it in adult and teen social justice development trainings for teams to prepare for an immersion experience in a community that is not their own. Here is a QFocus statement I've used this context several times:
The racial makeup of Lynn, Massachusetts is 42% non white. About 19.2% of the population is considered to be living below the poverty line.
Questions ranged from:
Does this amount change?
Is the 19.2% mostly non white?
How are these statements related/similar?
What types of activities are there for teenagers?
How does it feel to live in Lynn?
What is the food like?
What is the crime rate?
What do people do for fun?
How do the politics of the City Government affect those living below the poverty line?
What does Lynn have that my community does not?
How do children play?
Could I live here?
These are Some Questions!
A QFocus can be a statement, a quote, an image, almost anything except a question. Questions are the tools of the learners. The work of creating an effective QFocus resembles the work we do in designing an effective prompt. It should have a shared and clear focus, provoke and stimulate new thinking, and not reveal a teacher’s bias or preferences. When the leader displays the QFocus, s/he should not comment on it.
On this day of the summer school program in which we were about to set sail on an energetic round of the Good Question Game, here is the QFocus the kiddos would be asking questions of:
Take a moment to jot down your own wandering, wondering and specific questions. In the next episode of The Good Question Game, we'll take a look at the questions generated by the middle/high schoolers.
Yours in questions,