Using Thinking Routines to Formulate Better Questions
Questioning is THE skill to master when you want to create engaging discussions & dialogue around art and objects. Questions help us learn, avoid misunderstandings, gauge prior knowledge, manage, coach and build relationships.
It’s a big subject and there’s lots to cover. I have previously talked about how to ask brilliant questions that get results and 9 mistakes to avoid when asking questions. Developing better questioning skills is something we can all work on. Sure, it takes practice and effort, but over time we can all develop the ability to formulate better questions that get good responses. Today, I’d like to look specifically at how you can practice formulating better questions just by using 2 simple thinking routines.
I use the Creative Questions thinking routine (also called Question Starts) frequently to generate a list of interesting questions for new objects, images or themes that I would like to use in a guided art discussion or as part of a new educational programme. This routine encourages you to really observe and get to know the artwork or topic you are researching. It provokes your curiosity to find out more and gently pushes you to push beyond questions about information. Brainstorming a list allows you to flow through your first ideas, and then go beyond to deeper or more generative questions.
The ‘question starts’ provided by the routine provide inspiration to get you started with the process of phrasing interesting questions. With repeated use, these questions starts and the language of inquiry becomes automatic and phrasing good, substantial open-ended questions of your own becomes much easier.
After you’ve come up with a list of at least 12 generative questions, you are then asked to place a star next to the most interesting ones. You can then take time to discuss one or all of these – either on your own if you’re doing the exercise individually or with a few colleagues. Working through the steps of this thinking routine with others, also helps to generate a list with a variety of perspectives other than that of your own.
I recently used this thinking routine during one of the live group tutorials for my VTMO course. Our focus in Module 2 is all about questioning and I really wanted participants to generate their own lists of questions around a specific artwork, before narrowing the list down to just one question that they would like us to discuss with the group as a whole.
Most participants agreed that the task was difficult at first, but that the question prompts helped them get started. The outcome was worth it.
“Great to go through the process we will be going through with students and want the students to go through…how do the questions themselves feel?”
NB: This thinking routine can also be used by guides educators with groups as a way of generating a list of questions to decide exactly which lines of enquiry they will would like to explore.
Question Sorts is one of the new thinking routines in the new book The Power of Making Thinking Visible. It goes one step further than ‘Creative Questions’ and asks you not only to formulate questions but to sort them too. The aim is to identify which questions on your list are ‘powerful’ questions.
The routine asks you to create a list of questions that are generative (those take us somewhere) and genuine (that is, how much we care about) in response to a stimulus – ie an image, an object, a piece of writing etc.
Once you have generated a large list of questions on sticky notes or index cards, the task then is to sort those questions on an axis according to how generative and genuine they are.
Consider: how likely is this question to generate engagement, insight, creative action, deeper understanding and new possibilities? And: how much do you (or, the group, if you’re creating a list of questions with a specific group in mind) care about investigating this question.
This routine asks you to sort your questions into 4 quadrants. You can create your own quadrant on a large sheet of paper, whiteboard or even by using masking tape on the floor. You can do this individually or discuss as part of a group.
The upper right section contains the questions best for inquiry: those that are both genuine and generative. Conversely, the bottom left contains questions that should probably be discarded. The top left contains questions that can probably be quickly looked up independently. The bottom right contains some good questions but ones that perhaps don’t seem that interesting right now.
It’s a really good exercise to do if you like to work visually – I love the process of moving post-its around the grid to see where they best fit. It really makes you think about the importance of each question and where it might fit into any discussion or programme.
The participants on VTMO enjoyed the assignment and liked the way questions generated more questions. Sorting the questions also helped many of the participants reflect on the form of the questions they are asking – some realised that they had been thinking of too many closed rather than open-ended questions (for the difference between the two types, see here).
‘I really enjoyed doing this. It made me think quite a lot about the form of the questions I was asking. Not entirely sure I have cracked it but think this would be a lovely structure for working with a group to decide exactly which lines of enquiry we would choose to explore’.
‘I would definitely use the routine again. It made me really think about the kinds of question I ask and would love to use when doing planning with a team’
There are other thinking routines that you can use to generate lists of questions – such as See-Think-Wonder, Think-Puzzle-Explore or 3-2-1-Bridge for example – but the beauty of these two routines is that they make you think not only about the type of questions you are formulating, but whether those questions are genuine, interesting and will actually lead to further insights or deeper understanding. These are routines that are definitely worth getting to know – make them part of your personal practice too.
Masterclass: The Art of Questioning
If you’d like to be taken step-by-step through the process of improving your questioning technique with tools and exercises to help you consistently create, sort & evaluate your own brilliant questions (that will delight and engage your audience), take my special 90 minute recorded masterclass.
✔️Learn about the different types of questions and when to use them
✔️Learn simple yet powerful ways to generate, formulate, sort and evaluate questions in response to prompts, artworks and images
✔️Learn to analyse, track & reflect on your own questions, turn closed into open questions (and vice versa)
✔️Finally you will learn new thinking routines, techniques and activities that you can use regularly to perfect your questioning technique
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