Sunday, May 13, 2012

Good Question

Dezeen Listening Tubes

I love good questions, ones that are chewy, complex, sometimes crisp. I love questions that are well-framed and well-crafted, and open up a moment. I also love questions that do work, point to something new to consider. Part mirror, part crowbar, part rubber band, a good question invites reflection, offers clarity, provokes thinking, pushes possibilities, and forges new connections.

The current string of conferences I have been attending has been wonderfully generous in offering a rich mix of engaging questions. To start with, Lani Shapiro renewed my thinking about questions at the community dialogue on learning hosted by the Reggio-inspired Network of Minnesota when she noted:

The questions we ask to create dialogue are different from the questions we ask to create certainty.

Her statement made a sharp and useful distinction and tuned my radar for good questions. In the 10 days since, at the American Association of Museums conference, Reimagining Children’s Museums conference, and the Association of Children’s Museum’s Interactivity, a variety of good questions for both dialogue and certainty have surfaced.

Two questions, in particular, that John Wetenhall, President at The Carnegie Museums (Pittsburgh, PA) posed in Implementing Public Value in Museums at AAM conference Creative Community, have stayed with me. One is a big, roomy question that every museum should keep front and center, especially as it plans, makes major decisions, reflects on its position in the community, or asks for funds, What questions are we asking about the public value of our museum for our stakeholders?  The other question is very different and actually an all-purpose opener for inquiries intended to push beyond familiar–and often worn–ways of thinking, How can we think better about…?

Carol Coletta, Executive Director of the Chicago-based ArtPlace posed a set of three questions when she addressed the Association of Children’s Museum’s Reimagining Children’s Museums leadership conference in Portland, OR. In posing her first question, What would the pervasive, everywhere, and all the time children’s museum look like? she squarely set children’s museums in the 24/7, mobile, digital, global world in a way that will invite dialogue, and lots of it.

If Carol’s question was intended to invite dialogue, Charlie Trautmann posed questions intended to create greater certainty. Executive Director at Ithaca Sciencenter (NY), Charlie posed four questions about using and interpreting data related to the changing faces and motivations of museum visitors. He asked, 1) Is it real? 2) Are we analyzing it correctly? 3) Does it matter? 4) How should we respond?  Relevant to his walk-through of recent museum survey and census data, these questions are also good tools for working with any data.

When Dale Dougherty, founder and general manager of Maker Media, asked, What can you do with what you know? he was framing a question that is much bigger than it first appears to be. He is recognizing that we always know something and can do something with what we know. He focuses our attention on how making matters, regardless of what we make; making  creates evidence of learning. 

Among the many roles, activities, and honors mentioned in the long introduction of InterActivity’s keynote speaker, John Seely Brown, was helping people to ask the right questions. In his presentation, Brown posed many questions in service to a broader question, How do we take the sense of children engaged in wonder in an environment of learning for fun all the way through life–beyond just childhood? In addressing this question, Brown proposed a balance among knowing, making, and playing–among homo sapiens, homo faber, and homo ludens.

In her acceptance speech for the 2012 Great Friend to Kids Award on behalf of Reggio Children, Professor Lella Gandini shared insights into the question-powered pedagogy of the municipal infant, toddler, and preschools of Reggio Emilia (Italy). Whether it is the question 18-month old Laura asks by pointing to a picture of a watch, the questions posed by the affordances of materials such as clay or wire, or the possibilities of place, questions and active listening extend children’s explorations and help make their thinking and learning visible.    

Settled into the question-rich context of these conferences, I couldn’t help but notice and appreciate the appetite for questions expressed by Portland Children’s Museum, the local host for InterActivity. On its website, the Museum notes, we’re constantly asking ourselves big questions: How do children influence and guide our mission? How deeply can we connect and engage with our community? How do we support parents, educators, and caregivers to see the Museum as a valuable resource?

Thinking about the coming year, I feel well stocked with questions from these conferences and from connecting with colleagues. What about you? What questions did you find particularly engaging that you expect to be following in the coming year?   


  1. I especially love that first paragraph!

  2. I love your blog! It seems that this exercise could also be applied to help docents generate effective questions for gallery tours. I'm in the middle of training a class right now, and have added this piece to tomorrow's agenda!
    Engaging Questions

  3. There's nothing like a good question to engage people. Here are some other posts on questions which you may find helpful. :