Asking Questions: Inquiry Learning and Analytical Writing

Asking Questions: Inquiry Learning and Analytical Writing

by Gwen Hyman and Martha Schulman 

On April 2nd, Gwen and Martha will be presenting during session four of our spring gathering. You can watch them at 2:00 pm EST. Their presentation is titled: “No ‘Bad Writers’: Great Reading and Writing Methods for Visual Learners.”

So: about four years ago, we set out to write a writing handbook together. We knew that there would be challenges, but since we came from the same place in terms of writing pedagogy and had worked together for years, we thought that the process would be fairly straightforward. True (if unsurprising) confessions: writing a book with another human is hard. If you’re going to write anything good, you have to be honest–but if you don’t want to kill each other, it’s a good idea to temper that honesty just a little bit. It’s a tricky dance.

The most important lesson we learned? Ask questions. We became each other’s constant interlocutors: “can you explain what you meant when you wrote that?” we asked  one another. Or, “how does that idea work, exactly?” Or “is that in the right place? In the right order? In the right chapter?” But asking questions wasn’t always easy, especially in the beginning. Every time one of us posed a question to the other, it felt like it was either it was a confession of stupidity or an accusation of one. And what if we torpedoed the whole project by revealing, through our questions, that we weren’t on the same pedagogical page after all?   

Once we got brave enough to start really asking questions in earnest, we found we could interrogate assumptions we’d been making in our classroom work, open up what we’d thought were closed discussions, and really analyze our ideas. It was a scary and challenging process—but so worthwhile. We really learned how important questions are to doing meaningful analytical reading and writing, and we made interrogatory learning the heart of our book.

Our experience reinforced something we already believed: inquiry-based thinking is critical to good analytical writing, no matter who’s doing the writing. That’s because analysis starts by identifying a problem—an issue that needs to be explored—and the driving force of exploration is questions. That’s what close reading is all about. When students learn to read with an eye for moments that spark questions for them, moments where something makes them stop and go huh, their reading mode is profoundly different than when they just read for “right answers” or content. Asking questions is the hallmark of active engagement, the sign that students are doing more than just passively absorbing the ideas or events in a text: when they ask questions, they’re really thinking. And the act of framing those questions, of indicating what it is they want to understand, requires that they identify their own interests. While any number of students (not to mention Sparknotes) could identify the big themes or ideas in a given text (“Oedipus is about hubris”), question-driven papers ask students to make choices about what’s strange or interesting specifically to them in a given passage or text. In this way, they put students in control of their writing and give them the opportunity to discover that they have something to say.

But here’s the problem: when we ask first-year college students in our writing-intensive classes to start their writing process by asking questions about a text, they get uncomfortable. Why? Probably because they’ve come to associate doing well in school with demonstrating mastery, and asking questions feels to them like a demonstration of ignorance. Understandably, that’s not a risk they want to take.

When a student asks, “what’s going on in this moment in the text?”, she’s letting everyone see that she doesn’t know the answer. That’s scary enough, in a culture that puts so much emphasis on mastery and achievement. And, she might worry, what if it’s not even a good question? What if it’s an obvious question, or it’s got an obvious answer that everyone else already knows? What if it’s not the topic the professor wants to talk about? All of this can make question asking way too risky.

If this kind of question asking is scary in the classroom, it’s even more so in the paper-writing process: where we see the raising of a question as a signal of intent and exploration, students often see it as a sign of failure, set down permanently in black and white. And asking questions in a paper has yet another built-in fear factor: Many students believe that the world is divided into good writers and bad ones, and that the good writers are smart and the bad writers are, well, dumb. And they’re pretty sure that good writers have it all together, that they know exactly what they think at all times and never put forward any ideas that might be shot down. In fact, lots of habits that don’t serve students well—using $10 words they don’t fully understand, saying things that are obvious, dodging the text altogether by speaking in generalities—make perfect sense to them, because these moves seem like a way to avoid looking dumb. If avoiding the risk of being wrong is your goal, then asking questions seems like the worst possible move.  

Encouraging students to ask questions can be tricky for teachers, too. We’re often told that the teacher’s job is to be the authoritative voice in the classroom: to transmit facts and ideas, to control the flow of information, to be the final authority. When we encourage students to ask questions about a text, it can seem as if we’re giving them the green light to undermine that authority. After all, if students are asking real questions, their ideas  on the text might not align with ours, and we might get answers and readings we didn’t foresee. In an instant, a teacher’s carefully planned progression through the text can be completely derailed. Then what?

So we understand why the risks can seem to outweigh the benefits. But education is, or should be, about taking some risks. You can’t learn to swim while holding on to the edge of the pool. And when we agree to let go of being in full control, when we encourage and model for students what happens when they ask real questions (real being defined here as about something they encounter in a text that they genuinely don’t yet understand and want to know), amazing things happen. Students have the opportunity to think hard about a text instead of anxiously searching out “right answers,” and then feeling defeated because the answers they think must somehow be “out there” seem out of reach. They have space to figure things out for themselves, rather than simply reiterating what they already know. They switch from passively consuming information to actively exploring it. They become critical readers who don’t take texts or ideas at face value.

Encouraging students to develop questions based on what they think is interesting in the text may feel like walking on a high wire. But if we want our students to think for themselves and make real arguments, we have to teach them how to ask questions and why. And then we have to support them—and ourselves!—in the mental effort required to push past the conviction that asking questions is all risk and no payoff. The risks feel real, but the truth is: no one ever died from asking a dumb question. And the rewards are inestimable: real critical thinking, and students who care about what they’re writing about because their work is based on their questions and interests. If we want our students to think, ask questions, come to evidence-based, analytical conclusions, the only way forward is out on that high wire. That’s something we keep learning in our own work. And though it can be a hard lesson, we think it’s the most important one we offer our students.

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