Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

A Dilemma: How do we enable and encourage students to ask questions, not simply answer them?

Matthew Allen
Lecturer, Social Sciences
Curtin University of Technology

The dilemma introduced

Ever since I can remember, that archetypal 'crazy scientist', Dr Julius Sumner Miller has been advertising some product or another (most recently chocolate) and asking "why is it so?". He's been a sort of role model for me, an icon of (popularised) intellectual effect. That question - "why is it so?" - is, of course, the basis of scientific enquiry (including both the natural and human sciences). Each semester, I play at being Sumner Miller. My students (mostly studying history and culture) present essays in which they scratch at the surface of explanations, scraping away at the topsoil of understanding but always, it seems, leaving me writing in the margins "But why?". It is a similar story in their contributions to group discussions and tutorials, where they are often ready to provide information which describes or hints at explanations but usually which prompts me to say "Yes, that's good, but why did that situation emerge?". More recently, as I have tried to encourage students to think through the semiotic implications of what we are studying, I have found myself supplementing the 'why?' question with "and what does it mean?" since they usually don't present answers to that question, either.

The problem is that, by the end of their undergraduate education, these students should themselves be acting like the crazy scientist and asking "why is it so?", or playing at the mad semiotician and pondering "what does it all mean?". The perceived gap between recent undergraduates' specific knowledge and their analytical and communication skills (with which most doctoral supervisors have to cope and which employers constantly lament) is precisely because these students have not developed the questioning habit. Many students' failures to 'analyse' or 'understand' or 'challenge' or, generally, to exhibit the types of intellectual behaviour which are highly valued in the academic environment are not necessarily because the students are stupid, or lazy, or ignorant but because they don't have a consistent and stable set of skills for asking questions (of themselves and others). Because 'knowledge' is never self-evident, never absolute but alway contextual and dependent on the particular engagement of the 'knower' and the 'knowledge', these questions are essential. They act as the manipulative tools, enabling us to find, integrate, challenge, organise and review our knowledge, removing information from other contexts, moulding it and creating the 'analysis' which we value most highly.

Visualise the information which you are analysing as a heap of Lego blocks. The physical act of assembling them in some way is like writing or speaking - it is certainly an important skill, but it is not, of itself, the analytical act. Back to the Lego: there is a process of selection and planning ahead and altering the already assembled blocks that usually involves an unconscious process of saying to oneself "why should I put this block here?" "what will it look like if I do?". These questions function as the analytical glue that, while not actually connecting blocks to one another, clearly functions as an invisible glue. Interestingly, in the past ten years, most of the real Lego sold has been in kits which assemble into specific models, rather than in ways that are governed by the child's creativity and imagination. Now, while a child must still ask questions, they are controlled by the instructions and the picture of the finished model. Hence the questions are more likely to be: "now, which bit goes here?" or "does this bit belong here?". Moreover these questions are not really asked by the child but posed by the instructions and answered via the act of assembling. I would suggest that this latter form of 'Lego-building' is the type of analysis which most university education encourages in its students.

The dilemma experienced

I don't mind asking questions such as "why is it so?" per se. It is part of my job and provides an effective device for focusing discussions, giving interactive feedback and challenging students to go beyond their existing positions. Moreover, when asked these questions, students can often supply plenty of information or analysis that helps to answer them. Even when they can't, they rarely fail to see that it is possible to ask that question and, presumably, to answer it if they were to think more carefully about the problem or pursue a solution via extra reading. Nevertheless, I used to think that, because students were not addressing these questions, they had simply not looked for answers to these questions nor had thought where to look. But, as I encountered the problem more and more frequently, I began to realise that the trouble lay, not with the students' lack of knowledge or inability to select the knowledge to respond to the question, but rather that they were unable to reflexively - almost unconsciously - ask themselves the questions which academics take for granted. Their stores of knowledge and their ways of presenting it were too highly structured: developed and maintained as ready-made answers to the questions to be posed (or already set) by their instructors, the knowledge was not available in flexible, disconnected blocks ready to be assembled, but as fixed totality.

This situation can cause frustration on both sides. In my teaching style (as is more common in the humanities and social sciences), I tend to refuse to pose specific questions and seek instead to open areas of inquiry to challenge the students to engage critically. Where students lack the skills to take up that challenge, not only do I become frustrated at their 'failure' but they must come to grips with my 'failure' to provide the necessary structures into which they can organise their knowledge. Mostly, I have found, the interaction between myself and the students progresses well enough that both of us can understand the others' position and the resulting mismatch of expectations However we are just groping towards some sort of resolution or effective learning when the semester ends and the students depart for other units, other teachers or out of education altogether.

For example, in teaching an Australian history unit last year, I deliberately refused to provide questions with which students might focus their reading for tutorials each week. This breaks with what I understand to be the 'normal' pattern for such units (both in history and cognate disciplines, both at Curtin University and elsewhere). Normally students are given specific questions to 'answer' as they read and to serve as the basis for discussion in tutorials. I was well aware that this 'change', from a system where lecturers provided an implicit epistemological organisation of the concepts and arguments they were reading to one in which they were pressed to come up with one of their own, would be challenging. The students indeed found it to be difficult. Although we were, through discussion, able to develop some approaches which students could use to ask their own questions, I was not particularly confident that the students were actually implementing them in their reading. When I assessed the journals which recorded the students' reading efforts through the semester I found that only some of the students seemed to have grasped the idea that, to read effectively, one must first have in mind - no matter how tentative - a set of questions to act as the filters through which the dross of reading is strained out allowing the gems of understanding to remain clear.

What was most interesting was the differing reaction of my two tutorial groups (each comprising half the students in the unit). One group, which appeared to me as more conscientious, more earnest and more studious in their response, was uniformly hostile to the challenge which I presented to them each week in their tutorial reading. These students were, it seemed, capable enough and motivated enough to embrace the 'questioning habit': yet they did not do so readily; they mostly remained convinced that it was my job to ask the questions and their job to answer them. When I proposed that this model tended to assume that I knew the answer as well, they readily agreed. Most of them were strongly committed to the idea that their success could only be measured subject to the agreed template of question and answer which they assumed I had. My efforts to disabuse them of this assumption were ineffectual - not least because, on reflection, I was too concerned to appear 'in control' (which probably reinforced their sense that I had the answer but was not playing by the rules since I refused to give them the necessary question!).

The other group, in contrast, were (almost completely) committed to the 'no questions' approach, seeing in it a freedom to engage with the reading in their own manner. The students in this tutorial might be described as both 'more juvenile' and 'more adult'. I am sure that they seemed juvenile in that they were far less studious and more concerned to skip the tutorial for a more informal chat over a beer (it was a later afternoon tutorial); but we might also characterise this behaviour as being far more adult in the extent to which it demonstrated the control which these students sought to exercise over their learning environment. Their motivation did not, however, result in superior skills since few of them demonstrated any greater capacity to engage with their readings than the students in the other group.

In another area of asking themselves questions, another noticeable difference emerged. The major assignment for the unit was a research essay in which students had to 'write their own question'. In other words, although they received guidance from me about how exactly to approach their task, the students were responsible for thinking up a 'problem' to be answered. There were no set essay questions: simply a list of broad topics (ie "the history of film and television"). I also told the students that they were to approach their task as if they were writing an article for a general audience and not responding to some set assignment. The difference which emerged was that the third year students were much more comfortable with this idea and grasped the basic requirement (to take an active role in establishing the 'questions' as well as the 'answers') much more effectively. I'll say more on why I think these differences occurred in a moment. Let me conclude this short discussion of my recent experiences with the 'question/answer' dilemma by considering the results of my teaching in a unit specifically designed to help students learn to be more analytical and more critical in their thinking.

This unit, Applied Reasoning, is a generic 'skills' unit in critical thinking which is taken predominantly by accounting and social science students but with a fair leavening of students in the natural sciences, psychology and computing. Much of the teaching literature on critical thinking operates on the assumption that reasoning, or critical thinking, is a complex set of skills which involves students in a process of self-questioning. Applied Reasoning is organised, in part, around this idea of self-questioning. What I have observed, from two years' teaching over 600 students, is that students can ask the questions but they don't realise that the need to. For example, discovering the assumptions on which an argument rests (clearly a fundamental skill in any work, academic or not) is, by and large, summed up by asking questions such as "is this the only way of interpreting the data?" "why do these reasons lead to this particular conclusion?" "what am I not being told which, logically, is required to make this argument work?". When we work through these questions, students generally come up with good answers (as long as I am posing the question); when, later, they are required to look at a particular argument (usually no more than a few lines) and 'find the assumptions' many fewer students can repeat the process successfully.

Using an approach which develops students' questioning works: students do improve in their critical thinking and report that they have increased confidence in their analytical capacity (at least within the relative artificiality of the unit). Perhaps the students' mistakes and failures are to be expected of people introduced to a skills for the first time and slowly coming to grips with it. But let me leave you with two final observations from those 600 students' work which might suggest that there are factors other than simply the degree of skills development involved here. First of all, the students who routinely 'do better' (by various measures) are from the disciplines where, generally speaking, students are encouraged to be active learners. The majority of students from business studies where (by all accounts) students are explicitly positioned as passive and receptive and not critical and questioning find it extremely difficult to adjust to the needs of this unit (even though, ironically, it was first introduced for their benefit). These students are not stupid. They have highly developed skills in asking 'strategic' questions ("what do you want me to do in answering this problem? how much work do I need to do?"); they are conscientious (presenting large quantities of work for assessment); and have often done very well in their other units. So their failures are, I think, much more the result of their own understanding of their 'role' in this play of knowledge rather than an inability to act at all.

Secondly, whatever discipline students are from, their capacity to analyse is highly dependent on their existing knowledge. Unsurprisingly, where knowledge is low, they find it difficult to analyse; perhaps more surprisingly, many students find analysis difficult in the areas that they are themselves studying! Since analytical skills are expressed through self-generated questions used to structure and order knowledge, where knowledge is low, there is nothing for the questions to structure. But, equally, if the questions have been provided along with the knowledge (as is usual in many units), then analysis is also very difficult.

The dilemma theorised

Writers in the field of critical thinking stress that motivated students - those who want to question - tend to be the best critical thinkers. While I would certainly agree that motivation can help, I do not think that motivation is a sufficient explanation for the considerable success of some and the lack of success of others in Applied Reasoning. Reflecting on the experiences of that unit, as well as the history unit referred to above, I think that there are other factors involved. Or rather, I would say that there are other ways of reflecting on and exploring my experiences. Much that I read in educational literature draws on models of explanation derived from psychology. For example, many analyses of critical thinking skills and prescriptions for their development are couched in terms of the cognitive processes of individual students; others, perhaps, point to the social psychological processes involved in (say) group decision-making. I want to draw, instead, on the approaches which are commonly found in cultural studies that investigate the socio-cultural development of human subjectivity. In particular, I begin from the presumption that the human subject, which is often taken to be innate or prior to social interaction or learning, is in fact a cultural construct. Nor do we, as individuals, posses a fixed identity or even a singular identity: identity (or subjectivity) is multiple, formed at the intersection of various constitutive forces of meaning and identity which are expressed and maintained through the collective culture to which we 'belong'.

In Cartesian terms, subjectivity followed from thought ("I think, therefore I am"): but that subjectivity was not caused by thinking - rather, Descartes was simply proving to himself that he existed. And the 'knowing subject' was central to Cartesian rational thought and, generally, to most modern Western philosophy (and thereby to our current education system). Yet can we be so sure about our self-hood? In another reading of Descartes, 'cogito ergo sum' means I doubt, therefore I am, yet the one thing which Descartes did not doubt was the existence of God. It was from this certainty that he was then able to feel secure about is own subjectivity. Paradoxically, then, Descartes really meant "I don't think, therefore I am"! Moreover, whatever part of ourselves might (in some way) always already be 'us', that internal identity is transformed and moulded by the engagement with the outside world, with society, with other individuals and with the objects that surround us. Not only is the rational, philosophical foundation of the 'self' doubtful (except as a metaphysical belief) but there are strong scientific, empirical foundations (explored through sociology, psychology and even biology) for doubting the 'self' that exists without reference to the outside world.

Our sense of 'who we are' (which, really, is what subjectivity is concerned with) comes instead from external forces. It is not really a case of 'socialisation' - that children are educated to 'be' a particular type of person - but, rather, that there are (at any particular moment) competing and overlapping sets of cultural knowledge's from which a person might answer the question "who am I?". These knowledge's might, for example, be expressed as the current fashion in pop music / the sense of self instilled through parents / personal desires for success / television programs / social institutions such as work / and so on. Our sense of identity emerges , is maintained, is available to ourselves and others through the negotiations in which we engage to resolve or deal with contradictions or to amplify certain aspects of those available cultural meanings about the self.

It is important to understand the sense of self-identity, or subject-position of students we are teaching because the capacity to engage critically, to think, to analyse is thoroughly involved in the development and negotiation of identity. Descartes was right to establish the link between analysis and knowledge (cogito) and the self (sum): his error was to take it as a certitude and to shear off the thinking self from the institutional contexts in which we find 'knowing subjects' (such as universities). As Foucault has demonstrated, the formation of 'subjects' in a society is conditioned in large measure by the types of knowledge's in which they participate. People are the 'objects' of particular bodies of knowledge - for example people with mental illnesses were and are 'constructed' in particular ways by the 'knowledge' which societies had at particular times about mental illness. Yet people are also thinking subjects within particular bodies of knowledge - learning to be an economist, for example, gives a person a particular self-identity through their participation in a discourse which seeks to explain and explore the world in economic terms.

So, in our involvement in teaching and learning, academics are highly implicated in the processes of identity formation. Within the epistemological frame I have just erected, their involvement does not take the form of 'telling' people who they are (in some totalitarian manner), nor lifting the blinders of false consciousness from their eyes to reveal their true self (in some leftist manner), nor encouraging personal growth to full self-hood from childishness (in some liberal humanist manner). Rather, academics and students are engaged in a two-way process in which particular forms of self-identity emerge. Through a series of well known cultural semiotic processes (the lecture theatre, the tutorial, assessment, handbooks, the university environment), there develops an imbalance in power between students and academics articulated through each side's perception of the other's role in the question and answer game of intellectual work (as discussed above). This imbalance (which of course has institutional approval, through statutes, policies, regulations) is also articulated in terms of relative knowledge. When asked why they thought I, as lecturer, should set the questions, the answer came back from some of my students "well..., because you know...". Their tone of voice indicated they thought the answer so obvious that they wondered why I had asked the question.

And, in the particular field of encouraging analytical, questioning habits in my students, I have come to the conclusion that asking students to be self-questioners, when their sense of self is strongly determined by their role as 'answer-givers', often fails and is certainly an uncertain business because of this articulated imbalance between students and lecturers and the differentiation that it expresses. It is the very process of differentiation between lecturer and student which defines the student (and lecturer) identity. To challenge this dichotomy so threatens the 'self' that students are most comfortable with that it may undermine the ability to question altogether.

And that's the dilemma!

Please cite as: Allen, M. (1996). A Dilemma: How do we enable and encourage students to ask questions, not simply answer them? In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p7-12. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/allen.html


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