Today I’m returning to one of my favourite subjects – questions. I’m exploring open-ended questions in depth – what they are, why they are important and when you can use them. Then I’m sharing 4 ways we can ask more open-ended questions in our museum programmes!
WHAT ARE OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS?
As I said here, as museum facilitators we use two types of questions – open or open-ended questions and closed or close-ended questions. Both produce their own ‘answers’ and each have disadvantages and advantages in their use.
An open-ended question is a question that allows someone to give a free-form answer in their own words. They invite many possible answers and therefore encourage & jump start discussion.
Open-ended questions generally require longer, fuller and more meaningful answers that originate from knowledge, thoughts, feelings, and experiences. They have no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or predictable answers. Words like ‘think’, ‘would’, ‘could’ or ‘might’ are often found in open questions.
Closed questions on the other hand are usually answered with a one-word or short response – such as yes or no or a single word or short phrase.
WHY ARE OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS IMPORTANT?
First of all, open-ended questions open up conversations, dialogue and discussions. They encourage participation as they are not looking for predictable answers, nor are they looking for the recall of any information you have mentioned earlier in your programme.
With open-ended questions participants can share and express their thinking. They can offer opinions and elaborate on details.
Open-ended questions give participants the freedom to share their ideas, thoughts and feelings. And by asking these questions you are signalling to your participants that you value their input and their thoughts, ideas and feelings. You’re not testing them for their knowledge, you’re genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say.
And by asking your participants for what they have to say, you are in effect engaging them more fully. You are building rapport by actively engaging visitors in conversations and relating to them.
An open-ended question compels respondents to think more carefully about what they are going to say. They force you to be creative, come up with new ideas and use your imagination.
They also might ask participants to problem-solve or to search for specific vocabulary that conveys their ideas. They provoke much more complex answers than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
And this in turn, benefits you as the facilitator. You get to know your audience better, you get to understand what they are curious about and you can then personalise the experience to fit in with where they are coming from.
Open-ended questions allow you to make your programmes participant-centred. With open-ended questions, the control of the conversation or discussion switches from the person asking the question to the person being asked the question. It starts an exchange.
In summary then, with open-ended questions you’ll find out more information and get a fuller explanation, & you’ll also get to hear what the other person is thinking.
The beauty of using open-ended questions is that as people reveal more about their thoughts, they give you more information about which to pose more questions…
However there are some disadvantages: such as you may get too much information from your participants. open-ended questions can sometimes produce answers that are just too long-winded. Open-ended questions may frustrate participants who are eager to be ‘told the answer’.
As I said at the start, it’s worth knowing the difference between open and closed questions so that you can ascertain when best to use them.
Open-ended questions are sometimes seen as the ‘best’ type of question because they invite discussion and exploration of ideas, but there are some times when a closed question is needed and works well too.
When to use open-ended queSTIONS
- Anytime you want to start or open up a discussion with your group, when you want to stimulate or jump start a discussion. But also when you want to encourage reflection.
- Anytime you want your group to explore their thoughts, feelings and perspectives on a subject, artwork or object.
- Open-ended questions encourage divergent thinking: and this type of open, varied and detailed thinking helps us to understand art, history or whatever we’re looking at in the museum. Open-ended questions are especially good at helping to explore the unknown!
- You’ll want to use closed questions at the start of your programme to find out information about your group and to check in with the group from time to time. So anytime you need quick responses, facts or focused answers, you would want to use a closed question instead.
Composing decent open-ended questions is a skill. So how can you get better at asking open-ended questions and ask more of them in your programmes? How can you make sure that you don’t default to closed questions or recall questions?
HOW TO ASK MORE OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS
When you’re having any kind of conversation, not just when you’re working but in everyday life too, listen intently for the open and closed questions. Be on the lookout for them. When are closed questions used and when are open questions used? When do you feel stopped in the conversation and need to ask for more info?
Then start to pay attention to the questions you ask in the museum – what kind of questions are you asking already? Do you navigate more easily to closed or open questions?
Beginning to pay attention to patterns will help you to learn how and when to ask open-ended questions. And this in turn will lead to you asking better open-ended questions more often.
Get used to asking open-ended questions and practice using them. Get together with a colleague and practice questions back and forth with each other.
You can do this in the museum together standing at an artwork or an object. Or you can use thinking routines Creative Questions as I suggest in my Art of Questioning class. You can also do practice anywhere by trying out the below this activity together.
Learn how to transform any question into an open-ended question
This is an activity that we do in my Art of Questioning class. We work on our questions and change closed ones into open-ended ones.
We learn what words and phrases can open up a question and turn it from closed to open so that we can promote fuller, longer answers.
In order to do this effortlessly, you need to be crystal clear on the difference between open and closed questions. This enables you to then transform and change your questions.
You could first do this as a written exercise, but the more you do this, the more you will be able to change your questions on the fly when you’re with groups. You will know instinctively how to transform any questions into an open-ended one.
3 QUICK HACKS
- If you ask a closed question, you can always follow it up with an open-ended one or change the question stem and use words like ‘what’ ‘why’ or ‘how’ instead.
- Secondly you can turn any closed question into an open one by asking ‘in what ways?’ at the end.
- Finally use open-ended questions as follow ups for other questions. You can do this after closed or open questions. For example, you can ask why or how to get more information and follow up after a closed question. Or if you’ve just asked an open-ended question, listen to the response and then follow up with another open-ended question. This should refer or relate to what the speaker has just said.
These quick ways to ask more open-ended questions help the conversation to keep flowing in an open and engaging way.
THE ART OF QUESTIONING CLASS WITH CLAIRE BOWN
If you’d like to do a deep dive with me on open-ended questions then I recommend you take my recorded class The Art of Questioning.
This 45 minute class takes you step-by-step through the process of improving your questioning technique with a variety of tools and exercises to help you ask better questions.
I’ll teach you some simple and powerful ways to generate, sort and evaluate questions. You’ll learn how to structure, sequence and reflect on your questions too. And I’ll teach you thinking routines and other techniques that you can take away and use regularly to work on your questioning skill.