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Questions and Answers

I once gave a lecture to executives of a media company and later found myself talking with the CEO. He asked me about major demographic trends in the country, and I asked him about challenges facing his company in the future – acquiring staff with the right technical skills, leadership in the company, gaining the right information to guide decisions.

He said that he really never had a problem finding answers to questions that anyone might pose. He claimed he could always find someone in the company to dig up the relevant facts, or he could bring in a consultant with the requisite answers. The scarcity that he continuously felt, he asserted, was the formulation of really good questions. Knowing what questions to ask, judging whether he himself was asking the right questions, discerning whether his lieutenants were asking the right questions – those were the things that kept him up at night.

I find myself coming back to that statement from time to time. Increasingly, I wonder whether it’s deeply related to what higher education is facing this century.

My memories include a set of classes on research skills that I taught, where, after a couple of editions of the class, I realized I was teaching it in exactly the opposite way that I should. I was having the students read journal articles. They had been taught over and over again to read articles to extract from the writing a set of facts. They knew how to do this quite well. They would be able to recite the key findings of the pieces with ease.

What they were not doing, however, was identifying what didn’t appear in the articles. What did the authors fail to do that should have been done? In short, what questions were not asked prior to the work? What unanswered questions were motivated by the findings of the work?

Universities are very expert in transmitting the current knowledge in our fields. We update our classes each edition to assure that we are relevant to the latest developments. We give the best set of answers for the given moment. We do indeed teach the critical skills that are needed to identify weaknesses in a piece of work; we often have students suggest improvements in a piece of work based on very close reading of the work. This critical review can sometimes reveal new questions but often identifies better ways to garner an answer.

To form the leaders of diverse fields for the future, I suspect, we also need to teach the students to ask the right questions. As the CEO said, the ability to ask the right questions is an important vehicle for advancing understanding.

It might be interesting to focus more direct attention on the anatomy of a question in different fields. What makes a good question? What kind of question forces a different perspective? What type of question suggests new ways of proceeding?

A good question probably has to offer a guide to what is not known; that is, what information, if it were available, would answer the question? A good question probably has an answer that fills a real gap in how we understand the given domain. If we knew the answer, the pieces of our understanding would fit together better. A good question, once pursued, probably suggests new ways of thinking about old problems.

It would be fun to play with the idea of classes whose products are not answers, but questions. Like the CEO said, once we identify the important questions, our search for answers has much greater promise.

9 thoughts on “Questions and Answers

  1. Even on the same topic, it is good (a normative judgment on my part) to ask multiple questions (rather than only a single question) on the topic of interest. Being rather purpose-driven, I recommed asking questions that fit with the four types of analysis constituting comprehensive policy analysis: (1) descriptive analysis, (2) predictive analysis, (3) normative analysis, (4) prescriptive analysis. What is the baseline situation? What is likely to happen (if nothing new is done and if various alternative policies are enacted)? How would you and other parties judge the alternative results as well as the baseline situation? What would you recommend being done, by you and by others? Question with purpose in mind (even if the purpose is to ask non-purposeful questions in order to serendipitously discover that which you wouldn’t have ordinarily pursued knowing :-)

  2. To this reader, the present contribution is one of the most exciting provostial posts to date. One of my favorite pedagogical approaches during my 47 years at Georgetown was what I happily called ” via negativa “.
    In concrete terms, I would ask my students to imagine that they could momentarily remove this or that element of some text we were examining, and then, rereading the passage where that ” surgical ” operation had been performed, ask themselves — and others in their work group — what, if anything, was missing from the point of view of their search for coherence and meaning. When asked why they needed to perform that odd procedure, I would insist — and they would soon verify — that doing so allowed them to ascertain whether the element now missing was of primary or purely incidental importance.
    Concerning the matter of asking the right questions, there, too, the issue is one of opening up the text to creative puzzlement, which means that, to be ” right “, the questions must be genuinely open-ended, and not insincerely be masking their own preconceived answers which are simply looping the loop and causing us to run in place.

  3. Great post. I wonder whether you, or others in the community, can recommend articles/resources that address how to develop exactly that skill — or does it tend to arise differently in different disciplines so that there is no literature that would be useful in multiple contexts? Thanks.

  4. Great thoughts. There are many important and great answers out there. If we can just think about how to ask the right questions! . Well done Provost Groves!

    • In thinking about your post, I am reminded of a few issues I was wisely taught in Med school. One of the smartest things a Professor said was. “Remember always to read think and learn as probably at least 25% of what we are teaching you will be shown to be false”. Boy was that true! . Second , we were always taught to think our side the box to put together two different frames of thinking to come up with a different way of approaching a problem which couldn’t be addressed without looking at an issue from different frameworks. Then in studying Piaget’s theories of thought development , his highest stage of human thought is formal operations. Humans are the only animals we think.we think who can think about thinking and thus have the ability to hypothesize and have scientific thought not only based on current ” facts” . And the last piece of the use advice about ” data” was that if a disease occurs in one in a million people but if you are the one person with that disease, the incidence for you is 100%. Thanks for making me think about some of the roots of my thinking stimulated by some great teachers who taught much more than just facts!

  5. Great idea! In fact, I think that is what the best classes do – they make students ask different questions than the ones that have been asked before. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t know what has been asked before. Otherwise, it might be just reinventing the wheel.

    I my upper-division undergraduate classes I have students select their own research topic. The fun part isn’t just asking good questions, but for the students to dig into the data and find answers to those unorthodox questions. Isn’t that what new knowledge is really about?

  6. Yes, the question! In the introductory research course that I teach to undergraduate nursing students, in the undergraduate Honors course, and through mentoring our DNP students, it always comes down to the research question. The honing of the question and understanding the importance of the question to advance nursing science always takes students longer than they thought it would. Years ago in the early 1980s, one of my professors at Yale Law School, Peter Schuk, wrote a small, well crafted article entitled, “Are we asking the right questions in health care”. It may be time to ask this question again. It is a classic question.

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