How does asking questions help us learn?

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30 November
06:36
December
2016

The obvious reply is that if you don’t ask questions, you won’t get the answers, and if you don’t get the answers, you won’t learn the truth. But the ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates asked questions not to obtain information from others (who may or may not know the correct answers), but to test opinions and to lead his audience along a path of doubt and discovery through reasoning. It is no coincidence that he is said to have declared, “I know one thing: that I know nothing”. His method, exemplified in Plato’s dialogues, has come to be known as the Socratic method, and it is the primary method of teaching and learning in analytic philosophy today. 

The kinds of questions professional philosophers ask (“What is good?”, “Does life have a purpose?”, “What is knowledge?”, “How do our thoughts represent things in the world?”, “Is the mind separate from the brain?”) are not usually answerable, even in principle, by collecting any amount of empirical, scientific data (though conceptual confusion sometimes leads people to think they are). So, philosophers need some other way to test their hypotheses. The way they test them is to figure out the implications of their views, and see if they can withstand the heat of critical scrutiny. “Do I really know that?” is probably the central, guiding question of philosophy. 

“Questions aren’t just for eliciting information from others who already know things, but for learning what we think – or at least what we THINK we think.”

Questions, therefore, aren’t just for eliciting information from others who already know things, but for learning what we think, or at least what we think we think, while questioning our previously unnoticed assumptions, and recognising previously unrecognised implications of our views. To take an example, consider the question, “What is knowledge?” Suppose we first answer, “Knowledge is what you truly believe”. The philosopher might then ask, “What about true belief that lacks justification?”

Suppose, for example, that Jim forms the true belief that the number of stars in the universe is an even number, by irresponsibly following the teachings of a charlatan religious cult leader. We wouldn’t want to say that Jim knows that the number of stars in the universe is even, even if his belief luckily happens to be true. Suppose we revise our answer then: knowledge is belief that is both true and justified. The philosopher might then ask: “Consider this example: Adri gets up in the morning, looks at her grandfather clock that shows 9:15, and forms the true belief that it is 9:15. Unbeknownst to Adri, her clock stopped last night, exactly 12 hours ago. Does Adri know what time it is?” Most people answer ‘no’, and most philosophers think examples like this show that even justified, true belief is not sufficient for knowledge. What more is necessary for one to possess knowledge remains a matter of debate. 

“My five-year old son is a great learner because like most children, he makes fewer assumptions – and he’s not embarrassed about asking questions that seem silly to adults.”

I teach at CEU in the School of Public Policy as well as in the Philosophy Department, and my policy students at the start of the course often think I’m going to present true information to them that they should then write down and memorise. But that’ s not how a philosophical approach to learning works. Instead I ask them questions; we apply reasonable doubt to problems and assumptions, and we try to think actively – to solve issues not by collecting data but by thinking thoroughly and self-critically. Questions help us in this way to learn by helping us to think critically, which is far more flexible and useful than rote learning of information. My five-year old son is a great learner simply because like most children, he makes fewer assumptions, and he’s not embarrassed about asking questions that seem silly to adults. 

We all recognise a commonsense difference between learning ‘that’ and learning ‘how’. For instance, you may learn ‘that’ Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan or that the moon is 384,400 km from the earth. To get this sort of knowledge, you can ask a knowledgeable person, look in a book, or these days more likely: ask Google. But learning ‘how’ , for instance learning ‘how’ to play the piano, or how to ride a bicycle, is quite different. This kind of learning takes engagement and, usually, practice. The kind of learning that philosophy develops is achieved by asking questions. Yet it is far more learning ‘how’ than learning ‘that’.

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19 January
18:20

Most teachers would agree that asking questions is at the heart of learning. But there are opposing/contrasting pedagogical perspectives on what the role of questioning should be.

Prescriptive approaches, associated with traditionalist pedagogy, prioritise a written curriculum, one that has well defined and established domains of knowledge. The aim of education is to communicate these domains in the classroom and for the students to commit them to memory. In such classrooms the emphasis is on knowledge, provided and communicated by the teacher. The power relationship is fundamentally asymmetrical, with the teacher clearly making the decisions and organising the direction and speed of learning.

On the other hand Emergent approaches, associated with progressive pedagogy, prioritise a discovery curriculum, one that comes out of the children’s interests and observations. The aim of education at this end of the spectrum is to ignite a love of learning and keep it lit. The teacher’s role is to facilitate learning, to observe the children’s interests and shape the curriculum accordingly.

Now, if we concentrate not on the ends but towards the middle, we can see how a ‘mixed’ classroom approach structures the learning experiences of the students around a written curriculum, while also finding room to incorporate their interests and ideas. The teacher’s role in this type of classroom is to keep one eye on the direction and speed of travel through the prescribed curriculum, while at the same time keeping an eye on the students’ interest and engagement in the learning process. Slide too far one way and the teacher risks not teaching the curriculum, slide too far the other and she risks losing some of the students as they get bored and disengaged.

“Education is a process of inquiry and questions are the chief agents by which meanings are mediated.”

Working in this way requires questions to become the primary tool of learning. As Morgan and Saxton explain in their excellent book, Asking Better Questions, “Education is a process of inquiry and questions are the chief agents by which meanings are mediated.” If our aim, therefore, is to teach the curriculum in ways that incorporate the student’s interests, then giving them opportunities to ask and explore their own questions is central to the process. But more than this, questions are the main mediates of meaning. That is through the asking, exploring, and answering of questions (with the support and know-how of the teacher) students are able to both acquire new knowledge of the curriculum and develop the cognitive tools necessary to make meaning for themselves.

Using a painting to start an inquiry

For this to happen they need opportunities to engage with the process of asking questions. Being given answers, to ingest, remember, and regurgitate for a test, is not enough. Learning, at least the kind of learning that hands the tools to the learners, requires a lot more, it requires the students to engage in the learning process, to ask questions, work out answers for themselves, and to collaborate with the teacher and with each other.

This has to start early and happen often, it can’t be tagged on as an afterthought or left until students finish school. If we do this, it won’t happen. Developing an inquiring mind takes time and it takes practice. Asking questions is central to the process and it doesn’t happen by magic. We need to be rigorous and disciplined in planning and in providing students with opportunities to ask questions, discuss possibilities, and investigate answers. If we value education as a process of developing critical, reasoning minds, as well knowledgeable and wise ones, then asking questions is not just helpful, it is essential.

www.beginnersguidetomantleoftheexpert.co.uk

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