Monday, 8 February 2010

Asking Better Questions (part 1)

I vividly rememeber a time at music college when the question "What is art?" set off the first academic year with the intention of generating some healthy discussion about it. Maybe it was also to challenge preconceived ideas or to expand thoughts that people may already have on the subject, but my recollection of this day was of a very defensive position that one lecturer took when I suggested that the question "What is art?" was actually quite limited, and that perhaps the topic may be better addressed by asking "Where is art?" "When is art?" "How is art?" and even "Why is art?". Judging by the reaction I got, I don't think these questions fit into that particular lecturers 'plan', and as I learned quickly, you can't go against 'the plan' in an established academic setting. To challenge 'the plan' is to challenge the institution itself, and they don't like that very much. For anyone else, outside an institutionalised educational setting who may wish to explore an idea and develop a deeper understanding of a topic beyond some elses 'plan', asking better questions is a very good way to achieve that.

What this brings me to is an important set of questions which can be asked of anything, and for the current focus on phrasing, "What is phrasing?" can generate some interesting answers, but how about "Where is phrasing?" "When is phrasing?" "How is phrasing?" or even "Why is phrasing?". Proper grammar might sometimes be difficult to fit with these questions, but what they pertain to is there, and exploring the answers to these 'better questions' can lead to some useful insights that in turn, can better inform what it is you're trying to do.


  1. I like this :) Not least of all because the academics "plan" underscores so much that is wrong with teaching today - it's become a liturgy and not an interactive process between intellectual entities where one merely possesses more knowledge to call the tune, but ideally not more ego - or the debate soon ends.

    The right questions: the other day I was playing mastermind (a game where on player uses logic to determine a sequence of coloured pegs) with the eldest and my wife.. I took a turn to confirm 4 colours weren't in the sequence - I asked a question and the answer I got was totally wrong, I got nothing right; this enabled me to solve it the very next turn - if I'd got even one thing right it would have taken longer.

    I think, for some people, there's confusion in the purpose of a question: is it there to confirm your intelligence or engender approval? If so, the precision of a question is split and it's not effective.

    I think what you've done, Nik is delineate between practitioner and theorist. A theorist rigidly adheres to rules and convention - exam questions must be answered correctly: so all questions must be answered correctly; to not do so is humiliating... whereas Thomas Edison is said to have made 1536 failures before making a light-bulb: how many academics could tolerate that?

  2. The supportive nature of this comment is sincerely appreciated (as ever). There is an interesting point raised within it which I was going to touch upon in another post which is to do with 'tolerance'.

    The very question asked at the end of your comment "How many academics could tolerate that?" is most interesting. In extension of the blog title "Asking better questions" I have a brief out line of a 'part 2' to this blog which explores this idea further. There is most probably a good joke embedded in there which exposes some profound truth about the real shortcomings of 'the system'. Something like:

    Q: "How many attempts does it take to invent a lightbulb?"

    A: It depends on who set the assignment, when the deadline for submission is, and what criteria is being used to mark it"

  3. I completely agree with your ideas. It is a matter of asking the right questions at the right time, to the right people. Asking questions done with creativity has been a good practice in classroom question constructions as this indeed allows our students to think critically and logically - going out of the box. Keep up the good work! Please also share more relevant studio management tips and resources - giving us more rooms for effectiveness and efficiency. Thanks again and see you around. Cheers!