by Terry Heick
Clocks and old watches are miracles. If you’ve ever taken one apart and had a look at the intricate gears with their jutting teeth reaching out with just the right math to tick in rhythm with the pulse of the universe, you’ll see that whatever mind conjured the thing and all its parts is mad.
Imagine the dogged pursuit of a proper clock-maker, day after day bound up in design and measurement and function and orderly thinking, forcing exactitude on little bits of metal that never asked for it. And then finally getting it right–so many decisions and matters of design suddenly set the clock off ticking forever.
Get inside the mind of a clock-maker—one who still experiments with matters of design, improving their craft with minor revisions of planning and execution—and suddenly you’re seeing from ground zero how things come to be, first in a humble glow, then a blinding white starlight that bleaches everything.
There’s a lesson here. But first, some background on bad questions.
The Irony of Bad Questions
There is an irony to bad questions, in that they can be more difficult to answer than a good question.
Questioning is the art of learning. Learning to ask important questions is the best evidence of understanding there is, far surpassing the temporary endorphins of a correct “answer.”
So what makes a question bad? Well, that depends on what you think a question should “do.”
Produce a nice and tidy answer?
Cause a student to reconsider a position?
Force someone to go back and look more closely at how they know what they know?
All make sense, and a good question can do all of that.
But a bad question? They halt, freeze, deflate, and derail thinking.
Simply put, bad questions are confusing questions.
That’s not to say that good questions shouldn’t be challenging, and that students might not hit a spot where they feel confused. They might. But a challenged learner and a confused learner are not the same.
It’s not all about “rigor” either. Bad questions can be rigorous—force learners to think on higher-level planes—synthesis, evaluation, close analysis—and still be bad.
The Hallmark of a Bad Question
A bad question can be judged so because it gets at the wrong content, is full of unnecessary jargon, or is syntactically corrupt.
But more than anything else, the most telling hallmark of a bad question is that it encourages learners to guess what the teacher’s thinking.
To try to get into the mind of the question-maker.
This, mind you, is decidedly different than understanding the mind of a clock-maker. A clock’s design inspires design thinking. What that clockmaker was thinking matters.
But a question maker is not a clock-maker–different, at best only a mediator between the student and content. Their intent can be noble, well-researched, and justified, but the maker cannot—or should not–linger like a good question.
There is the troubling matter of timing. Ask even the right question at the wrong time, and rather than front-loading, priming, scaffolding, or causing curiosity, students end up bewildered, their thinking scattershot, internalizing all the wrong things—social expectation, tempting recall, your relationship with them, or their own anxiety with the content.
Rarely, though, do they sit with the content and its context and metacognition, but rather the bloody question and the false promise of a correct response.
The Abstraction of the Question
The right question at the right time can make a learning experience, because more than anything read, drawn, or even written, a question is acute and properly troubling.
It creates a needle-point of light even as it suggests darkness.
Even if it’s multi-part and inclusive, it’s somehow singular.
It jabs and fingers at a learner’s mind, then burrows in like a drill.
A bad question is sloppy—it doesn’t burrow anywhere, but bangs around and makes a troubling noise. It forces the learner to come to the question and frown and decode. Decoding can be cognitively demanding and thus helpful, but not if it mars the student’s thinking.
A precise, well-timed question keeps the learner in the content, in their own mind, in the mind of model thinking—in the mind of the clock-maker and not the question-maker.
A bad question also creates the illusion of an end-point to thinking—of the student having arrived at some place where they understand the mind of the clock-maker. And when that happens, everything just kind of dissolves, and they sit passively and wait for another question, thinking they’ve won.
This, of course, is tragedy. The mind must never exhale, but grapple! Wrestle with a text, a concept, or a question until they’ve found a new question is better suited to the task. Taking a piece of literature, an engineering problem, or an ethical issue and reducing it to a series of question is a dangerous kind of reductionism.
Questions are links to other questions, and that’s it. Little fragments of curiosity that get at the marrow of important issues that resonate and thrum and linger. Statements of opinion, answers, and other lies are fine, provided they move aside to let the questions through.
When you ask questions—on exams, in person, in your next Socratic discussion—insist on good questions. Great questions. Model their development. Revise their wording. Toy with their tone. Simplify their syntax or implications over and over again until the confusion has been bleached and there’s only thinking left.
Until the question asks exactly what it should, and nothing more.
Lock the students out of your head—and away from guess-what-the-teacher’s-thinking, proficiency, false confidence, and overly-simple labels of “understanding.”
Instead, encourage them inside the mind of the clock-maker. Let them huddle, and sit in awkward silence.
Let them think you’re a little bit crazy.
And then watch for the questions.
Watch for the glow.