question mark

"Caslon metal type question mark" by Leo Reynolds via Flickr

I’m much better at asking questions than answering them. Guess it’s no surprise I worked as a journalist for years.

But just asking is important.

Our talk this week about Socratic seminars got me thinking again about the connection between questioning and learning.

I’ve written before about play and contemplative space, about possibility. All three ideas are circling the notion of curiosity, an important precursor to engaged learning. I also appreciated how several authors in this week’s readings emphasized the difference between “teacher questions” and authentic questions.

In my first time teaching a research paper to college freshmen, I tried to challenge their instinctual response to choose commonplace hot-button topics by introducing them to intriguing (I hoped!) written and visual texts, and then asking them to write questions about them.

Asking questions is harder than it seems, though, in my experience. I think it’s a skill that takes practice — and I’m not just saying that because journalists take questions seriously. (It’s amazing what people will tell you if you have a little notebook in your hand.)

Some of my students seemed more comfortable to look for “answers” in their texts, rather than to question them. I wanted to give them permission to question texts, though of course that’s a challenge for any thinker and writer encountering an unfamiliar discourse as an outsider. I soon saw that asking good questions is itself an act of synthesis, and one that benefits from an awareness of interdisciplinary connections.

Environmentalist and former writing teacher Derrick Jensen has a great passage in his book Walking on Water about the practice of asking questions to get beyond our preconceptions, and it’s one I often think of. A 3-year-old might call it the “why” game, but the same technique reveals some sharp insights when employed by college students. You can read the passage on page 106.

There’s something about forming a group around a text and giving each other permission to ask questions that feels vital — even when the text is just an excuse to gather, it’s doing important work. I would say the same idea applies to professional development as we enter the work world. It’s easy to forget as students — especially when we’re knee-deep in papers and readings — but few people get a chance to regularly reflect on their work among trusted peers, to ask: What are you working on? How’s it going? Why?

Editor’s note: For a classic on the meaning of work and reflection, check out Studs Terkel’s Working. Maybe I’m a romantic, but this book even makes me proud to refill staplers at the library.