We've had a chance to think about what might be challenging about following rules of a game. In the case of this series, the rules for producing questions really shouldn't be all that challenging. Still, they can be for some not patient or willing. All it takes is giving the The Good Question Game (aka the RQFT) a chance to understand why rules are necessary. As I explain to children, no one expects to be in a soccer game that has no common set of rules. Rules provide a framework for common expectation, goal, and steady process.
On this day of the summer school program in which we were preparing for the Good Question Game, we took the time to establish the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions. This is a pivotal step, and it takes simple practice to get good at it quickly.
We use closed-ended questions when a single word or very short phrase is what we are seeking for an answer. While they can be used to open up conversations, their use is specific to gathering more finite data.
When we ask open-ended questions, in any situation, we are looking for responses that have some description or depth. Open-ended questions are the stuff of conversation and of the active pursuit of gaining deeper understanding.
Our skill of being curious and of asking questions is demonstrated when we thoughtfully choose the kinds questions that will lead to information and insight.
Some examples of closed-ended questions:
How old are you?
What kind of ice cream would you like?
Have you been here before?
Do you need directions?
What size shoe do you wear?
Do you need help?
Some examples of open-ended questions:
How did you meet Sam?
What do you feel was most beneficial about your school experience?
What are some of the things that bring you the most joy?
What interests do you and your siblings share, and which interests do you not share?
What are some of your goals for the future?
How does your family celebrate special holidays?
How can I help you?
From these examples we see that close-ended questions are used to gain concise and quick responses. Open-ended questions are gateways into conversations. Both types of questions are equally important to understand, recognize, and apply.
There are so many ways to explore how we experience questions in our lives. Whether in our playtime, personal relationships, public life, school, faith and work lives, there will be a question. In the heightened and intense political culture we are in, vital rhetorical or actual questions are all too few. In the race for first, best, and brightest, we never seem to witness true curiosity. Why is this? Is there no time? Wouldn't we be more connected if we observed the process of public conversation, learning, and the formation of ideologies through inquiry? Why does it seem that to ask questions is to be perceived as weak? Where is humility, with courage?
In the course of your own day, notice what is spontaneous for you in the way you greet people, work with others, participate in a classroom. How often do we sincerely start a sentence with, "could you explain.......?" How often do we go out of our way to ask someone, "hey...want to talk?" Simply take mental or actual notes.
The Right Question Formulation Technique was developed to address the developmental needs of students so they can engage more actively and deeply with subject matters, learning and the pursuit of knowledge. Students formulate their own questions about a particular subject or topic. That action of being presented with a theme -- called the Question Focus (QFocus) and doing the self-inquiry of, "what don't I know about this?" is a very different reflex than what we are acculturated to do from a very young age.
(There are several studies that tell us that the age at which a human asks the most questions is four. There is much written about this in terms of brain science, sociology and educational theory. We can readily observe ourselves and the culture of a culture. How do our schools teach the art and skill of inquiry? What does media portray? What is the nature of typical conversations in the course of our day? We can be content with our observations or we can consider how we might cultivate more earnest inquiry. This takes time. It's worth it.
So get ready to ask open and closed-ended questions. Get ready to just try it out, the best you can, without actually being there for a round of the Good Question Game. It's as much about the giggles and the oohs and aaahs as it is about reading some directions and trying to enact the process yourself.
And imagine for a moment, who is capable of asking good questions? Does one have to already be "smart" to ask good questions?
In their seminal work Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press: 2011), authors Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana make the certain premise that, “all students should and can learn to formulate their own questions.”
If this seems simplistic or unnecessary to state, it’s not. The pernicious right answer game in real life has become a catastrophic sorter of people’s worth. Intelligence is about understanding things. How is it that we understand things? How is it that we have the motivation to understand things? What are the “things” we’re talking about?
Of all the concerns in our personal and civic lives, how many problems are a result of the insistence on certain, right, righteous answers? How often have you read someone’s self-proclaimed words of confusion, upset, hopelessness only for it to lead to a fierce us/them opinion? Humility can be quickly lost in the pressure to be right/eous or knowledgeable. If there is a question at all in such posting, it is framed in a logical fallacy, snarky rhetoric, or just an insult with a question mark at the end. ie. “WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE??”
Learning to ask good questions is the difference between that and the spiritual discipline of humility and empathy.
We can begin to change our perspectives in any moment when we wonder and ask questions, if only of ourselves. How has the story of my life impacted my opinions and beliefs? How might my story differ from another’s?
This is deep stuff. Check it out. Do some of your own record keeping on the questions you ask, are asked; the questions you hear.
Back to the Good Question Game, based on the RFQT. The rules for producing question outlined in The Good Question Game: Part 3 are an essential part of the process. As a game, they put everyone on the same playing field and create the sequence.
But then, take important notice! Part of the preparation to play the game, or participate in the RFQT methodology, is for a group to discuss what might be hard about following any of the rules.
This is an unusual component of how we understand the act of playing a game, or classroom methodology – to discuss what will feel hard. Imagine if just a bit of time were taken, pro forma, to ask and listen about the participants’ concerns. If that’s hard to imagine, what isn’t hard at all is to recall a memory of playing a game. Someone gets a little too excited, too competitive. Someone is pre-anxious or quickly becomes so. There is often a misunderstanding, a meltdown or a quick rise to mayhem. We all have first-hand accounts of our own.
Oftentimes the pressure of right answers, win/lose, high grade/low grade, is the set up to a stressful experience of playing or learning.
And so you could ask yourself – what is interesting so far about the Good Question Game? What do you think of the rules for producing questions? What part is challenging for you to follow?
We’re getting closer….
As I faced the few dozen middle/high schoolers, as I was ready to embark on my idea of teaching them the Right Question Formulation Technique (RQFT), I was flooded with doubt. I have led the RQFT several times -- with teachers of a private high school as part of their professional day, with college freshman as part of their interdisciplinary seminar, with religious professionals as part of a cross cultural immersion experience, and with a group of sub/urban teens as part of the same -- a cross cultural immersion experience. But 40 kids, including MIDDLE SCHOOLERS? What was I thinking?
On this day of the summer school program, I did what I always do when leading groups. I made quick adaptations to who was in front of me. I learned early on that it is an automatic failure for a leader to treat one group like the previous group. Variables like learning styles, race, class, age, gender, personality, dynamic, all create a group feel.
On this day, the first adaptation I made for the first time, in a split second, was to introduce my theme as The Good Question Game. I did this because "RQFT" and what it stands for is a mouthful, even though it is simple and engaging experience. Plus I had lots of game cred with the middle schoolers and the high schoolers. This past year, I've used leadership games, ethical games, thinking games, name games, art games, and game games to teach and connect.
Years ago, my love of games for learning was ordained by the late Stan Crow. The mentor's mentor and scholar of creating coming of age programs, he taught that the game, and even moreso -- the game debrief -- was curricula that could provide all lessons.
Games connect, equalize and tune a group. But it has to be a Good Game. My own rules for a good game are:
A Good Game has to have a point or purpose and require strategy.
A Good Game has to be fun to play whether you are winning or losing.
A Good Game is one that ya can't know ahead of time who will win or lose.
I love playing games with children and teens. They are willing and ready. As a result, we have some very deep experiences together. In my experience, adults have a much more difficult time suspending intellectual insistence.
And so when I announced we would be learning and playing the Good Question Game, all were excited. I gave the adults important jobs to do -- timekeepers, scribes, and cheerleaders. First I shared the rules to producing good questions:
And then there is a next step in getting ready. The group reviews the rules and talks about what might be challenging in following them. The anticipation builds but everyone is on board, yes?
What is one of the most powerful skills a person can have in their life?
Asking a big question like that to a crowd is risky. I'm used to such risks, and subsequently the lessons that come from failure. My only preface to calling out answers was that the responses should be sincere. To meet students where they are, versus where we think that should be or are, is a practical and prophetic imperative. Why wouldn't we as educators, mentors, leaders, ministers?
ANYway, that's how I began the rousing session of The Right Question Formulation Technique (RQFT) with upwards of 40 middle and high schoolers and several adult helpers and teachers. It was Thursday around 2:30 -- the weekly special presentation time as part of their summer enrichment program. I was a fill-in guest presenter and I had this tool -- the RQFT -- in my back pocket (and front pocket, on my mind and most importantly, in my heart).
The question was not too big for them. They called-out responses with sincere and serious ideas like "freedom," "a job," and "education," Yes, yes! All true.
"Okay, okay," I responded, "but what is even more basic than that? How do you manage that freedom? Why should someone hire you? What does it take to learn?" Then I impulsively took a paperback sitting on the table in front of me, gently pressed it to one to a teen's head and asked, "like this? Hey you, learn!!!! There, now you know what's in here."
"Nooooo," was the laughing chorus.
"How do you learn what this story is about?" I persisted.
"You have to rrrrreeeeeeeeaaaaad it!" they agreed.
"And are you reading it?" I was becoming annoying.
"Yyyyyyes," they said with a hint of eye rolls. They were too comfortable with me.
"And do you understand it?" and this surprised them.
With clear compassion in my voice I asked, "Do you know what this story is all about?"
"And what can you do if you don't understand it? don't know a word? aren't following the story? wonder about what this author is talking about?" I said even more softly.
It felt like over a few seconds they got it as they said together, "we can ask questions."
I almost cried right then but commanded myself not to blow it. I had the Good Question Game to teach.
The Right Question Formulation Technique (RQFT) was developed by educators to address the needs of students and parent/s who are considered marginalized. But it's not just for marginalized people. It is for any people. It is a simple and powerful tool that should not be passed over. It is a group process, therefore it's redundant to say that I don't advise anyone trying to speak of it, evaluate it, or lead it unless it has been experienced in full.
In 2013, I spent two days with dozens of educators around the country learning the RQFT. Yet since then and despite my excited efforts, I have only had the opportunity to lead/teach it for other groups a few times. Why is this, I contemplate daily.
I'm the type of meaning maker who first finds themselves experiencing something, on purpose or not. Then, I process my experience by thinking, talking, writing, creating, studying. Eventually, I often find the theory that matches my experience and my understanding of it. After 50 years of experiencing life in this way, I was so relieved to learn that I have an bonafide quality that has served me well -- curiosity. I say it has served me well yet it has often been obscured or silenced. Domineering peers and adults, traditional education, hierarchical systems will do that -- squelch curiosity. But as sabotaging are the busy schedules and pressured attention spans that mark our post modern selves. These are vicious curiosity blockers.
Take a moment to consider the instances of curiosity itself in conversations, rhetoric and public discourse. How is it that curiosity is not widely nor deeply understood or valued or even cultivated, especially by the many leaders, educators, and professionals charged with advancing mission-driven work? In my view, the absence of this from any agenda is a seminal piece of disempowerment. I'm not saying the chronically disempowered are not curious. On. The. Contrary. I am saying that the silencing of curiosity of the disempowered is what keeps people down. I will also say that we rarely see those in power -- whether in small groups, organizations or major public platforms -- include natural human curiosity in their rhetoric and role modeling.
It's no wonder we try to hone our well-put argument or prose of blame, rather than suggest we create a sacred circles in the middle of differing ideas, beliefs, and values. We are not called to do otherwise. No one would take the time for it. It gets masked by expertism, as if someone else can do it for the masses.
It's a loss to not be able to value getting quiet together, as is practice of many, peaceful faith traditions. In this way, we would advance our agility of empathy simply by expecting there are at least 3 sides to every story. Such spiritual practices include the experiences of others FIRST or primary. It isn't a surprise that our own viewpoint isn't The Only or Right Viewpoint. No one would ever have to say, "I don't know," or "I'm not sure," because it would be assumed that not one of us knows all or is sure about anything.
An underlying and constant spiritual attribute -- humility -- seems to scare most people. To suggest that we meditate and pray for humility can feel the same as hoping for weakness. This is sad. It's possible to be humble and confident, not sure and courageous. Such attributes are the basis of myths and the whole point of most wisdom tales.
With this Sunday commentary, I invite you to a series of writings I will share this week in the The Good Question Game. The climax of the series is the story of a few dozen kiddos who, together, quickly came up with the answer to the question:
What is one of the most powerful skills a person can have in their life?
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Currently I'm a summer school program leader and sometimes a teacher in subjects handed to me on an as-needed basis -- like a reading group for middle schoolers. I read aloud to the older children so that they can hear the story of Crash. The book is their school's required summer reading. If by the end of the story and the summer, they have a modicum more connection between getting through a book and knowing how to make meaning out of what they are reading, I feel they will have a ripe seed for their journey.
I also lead a high-school level reading group. Sometimes we don't even read the book, All Souls. We sit with the book on our lap and our finger marking a page as I attempt to explain words, references, and context. Sometimes I pause to take a break from the graphic narrative we are all taking in. Still, the teens will have to learn how to do this themselves -- read a book in a second language. I do ask them questions like, "do you know where Southie is?" "Do you know why people left Ireland?" "Why do you think the some groups of people think they are better than others?" "Google 'Whitey Bulger' when you get home; see what comes up first and come back and tell me the date." If by the end of the story and the summer, they have a modicum more connection between getting through a book and knowing how to make meaning out of what they are reading, I feel they will have a ripe seed for their journey.
I have no idea if my approach is helpful or useful. I do know to sit there with them, taking turns reading out loud, and sometimes giving them a break by reading to them. It's true I will be complicit in teaching them how to check something off a list. I know the feeling. Sometimes it's satisfying but it's not long before we learn that it doesn't move us along on our journey.
The children and teens express gratitude grateful for being safe now; now that they are here in the United States. Reading Crash, reading All Souls, I watch their faces as they try to make sense between the objective behind these required readings and the reality of their own lives. I'm frustrated that while these two pieces of literature are excellent, they are poor choices as a common read for children and teens in a city that struggles with socioeconomic and political race issues; a city that is 40% non-white. How is this a common experience? There is so much patent triggering in the constant narrative of stress, bullying, pain and suffering. My gosh, how can this be educational or rewarding?
At the end of each day, I do feel the joy of being with bright and eager learners and the sorrow of not being about to be an adult standing before them with a clear roadmap for their future. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be a trusted adult in their lives. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be a direct ally and advocate for young people in the struggle. I'm frustrated though. That's an understatement.