Sunday, December 29, 2013

2014 Resolution: Shiny Questions

Each new year is a grand question that unfolds over 365 days asking, “What does this year hold? During the course of the year hundreds of smaller questions appear, hover, perplex and delight. Hopefully many are answered.

In the spirit of a new year, I resolve to ask more and better questions in 2014. Power tools for thinking and listening, questions make connections, unleash creativity, and help solve problems

Statements can be clear and concise, elegant and even poetic. While good statements have their place, they can also give the feeling we have accomplished work only imagined. But when we ask questions, we begin to know what we want to learn about and what we need to find out. Questions direct our attention, open us to possibilities we can’t yet fully imagine, and help in managing uncertainty about the future. Questions make us learners. Questions developed with others make us part of a larger community of thinkers and learners.

Over the next year, I hope to make the most of different types of questions, ones that deepen understanding and ones that clarify information; open-ended questions, research questions, questions to get a conversation going, and questions to revisit. And I resolve to ask more shiny questions in particular.

Polishing Questions
A shiny question starts off like many questions intended to guide a project or extended work. When, however, the question is tossed, tumbled, and polished by a group of people working together to explore and understand its intent and potential, the question is strengthened, its meaning is sharpened, and its language made explicit. It becomes shiny.

The original shiny question emerged through a lively, collaborative process among members of several groups gathered to develop a research question for community camps in a St. Paul neighborhood. Nearly 10 years later, the shiny question has become the gold standard of questions for many of us who participated. Fortunately, two members of the group, Nan Kari and Lani Shapiro, captured and shared the conversation and related thinking that produced the shiny question. The following description highlights pivotal shifts in the 2-hour discussion and the 5 versions that the research question assumed.

The process of developing the shiny question begins
When a group of neighbors from St. Paul’s West Side and the Neighborhood Learning Community (NLC) at Augsburg College began planning neighborhood summer camps, they approached steering committee members of the emerging Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota (RINMn) to develop a research question to guide planning and learning from the camps. The groups, NLC, RINMn and, Minnesota Children’s Museum, enjoyed shared interests but had limited experience working together.

Inspired by the neighborhood as a “living classroom,” All Around the Neighborhood’s (AATN) free camps would serve children 5-11 years living in or attending school on the West Side. Children would explore the neighborhood in weeklong camps that highlight contributions from the cultures of people living in the neighborhood. Community members would serve as teachers for the camps.

Opening Discussion
Background information about the camps helped to both launch discussion and surface the need for additional information. 
An AATN planning team member shared two themes to be woven into each camp: learning about people and places in the neighborhood; and building and experiencing successful intergenerational and intercultural learning communities. She also shared questions AATN was curious about.
·       What do children learn in a neighborhood-based learning environment?
       What competencies do children build through informal learning in a multicultural, mixed-aged group of people? 
·       How do people, children and adults, learn about democratic principles/practices in a neighborhood-based learning environment?
       What skills are developed when children are engaged over time in an intergenerational learning community?
       What do children contribute to “place-making” on the West Side, when they are invested in a neighborhood learning environment?

Following initial consideration of the themes and questions, members of the group expressed a need for clarification and additional information. How do the questions relate to goals? How would AATN focus research? Would the questions actually tap the interests of community teachers? One suggestion was made to distinguish “what” questions from “how” questions. Four criteria for framing the research question were also identified.
·       Simple language
·       A straight forward question
·       Worded to allow making simple hypotheses
·       Lead to a compelling story that can be told to others

Incorporating this group’s perspectives on the themes and questions and adding criteria shaped an initial research question.

First version: How do children become connected to the neighborhood?
Developing the Question
With a question to focus on, discussion shifted to its capabilities. Thinking about working with the question, members of the group suggested that it should address:
  • How children might express being connected
  • Indicators adults use to interpret children’s connections to the neighborhood? (This accounts for adult filters)
  • How  we will know connectedness and what it looks like (Indicators)
  • The nature of the child’s connection to the neighborhood
In generating these questions, the group identified several factors at play. First, there were, in fact, two perspectives: those related to children’s experiences and those related to adults’ noticing children’s expressions of their connection to the neighborhood. This distinction helped highlight the difference between “connecting” and “experiencing.” Finally, distinguishing between adults and children prompted consideration of age-related differences. The next version of the question reflected these distinctions.

Second version:  How do children of different ages experience their community?

Peering into the Question
The group shifted its attention to making finer distinctions. If differences in ages could affect children’s experience of community, the group agreed it was also possible that children may be connected to the community differently and they may not be connected to the neighborhood. Connection to the neighborhood was likely a function of children’s experience. The group wondered what knowledge children create about their neighborhood, and how they construct it.

At this point in the conversation the group felt that the word community seemed to carry more complicated meanings than neighborhood, especially considering that AATN is a neighborhood learning program. This shift appeared in the next iteration of the question.

Third version:  How do children experience this (neighborhood) space?

Honing the Question
Consideration of children’s prior experiences, their agency, and the conditions to build connections to the neighborhood shaped the evolving question.
The group picked up earlier discussion about children having a range of prior experiences related to age, cultural group, school experience, etc. While AATN would be one way they could experience connection to the neighborhood, taking into account multiple prior experiences was important as was providing various ways for children express their experiences.

With children as the subject of the question, there was a on the child’s experience; this, the group realized, also included the possibility that children might not have the experience adults intended. The research question, they agreed, should allow for this. Yet, the next version of the question actually reduced children’s agency when the group thought about experiences the camps might create for children that build or strengthen connections.

At this point the group wondered how children become connected to the neighborhood. Referring to the original set of questions, it identified 2 major pathways:
  • Experiences leading–or not–to connectivity
  • Children’s knowledge and competencies that build understanding of their neighborhood

Fourth version:  How does AATN allow children to experience the neighborhood?

Questions Inside of a Question
Critical elements of the research question became clearer in a set of sub-questions.
  • What ideas do we have about children’s connections to the neighborhood?
  • What constitutes connections?
  • What details do children notice?
  • How do they represent the details?
  • What do we provide that facilitates their expression?
  • How do they respond to each others' interests (Social connections)?
These questions helped draw the group’s attention to relatively small changes in wording that signified meaningful shifts in the next, and final, version: the child is the subject; building connections is an active, on-going process; “the” neighborhood became “their” neighborhood; and AATN’s role is identified.

Fifth version:  How are children of different ages and cultural groups building connections to their neighborhood through AATN?
The final three versions of the question
 Final Reflection
A final review of the question considered both content and language. A critical look at this version considered how it allowed for different starting points; acknowledged children as active learners; and accommodated variations in the pace of learning. The group also noted that it also for children creating knowledge about the connections they make which the research should capture.
  • Each word in the question reveals something about our assumptions about children and ourselves 
  • Bridges/barriers facilitate children making connections
  • Recognition that AATN participants will look at the research question through different lenses
An iterative process of framing a question, discussing and reflecting on it, and recasting it moved through these 5 versions.

# 1: How do children become connected to the neighborhood?
#2: How do children of different ages experience their community?
#3: How do children experience this (neighborhood) space?
#4: How does AATN allow children to experience the neighborhood?
#5: How are children of different ages and cultural groups building connections to their neighborhood through AATN?
Thank you to the May 2005 group: Kelly Finnerty, Barb Murphy, Lani Shapiro, Patti Loftus, Sandy Burwell, Erik Skold, Jeanne Vergeront, Linda Melcher, Nan Kari


  1. I think the actual write up credits go to Nan Kari.

    This conversation was certainly one of the most productive and transformational that I've had the pleasure to participate in. My contribution might be to have saved the traces and archived them in such a way that I could retrieve them, having seen this conversation as a seed for further, deeper, alternate ways of building collaborative work.

    This highlights the role of documentation, interpretation and visibility that you've written about in your blog: having a record of the conversation, interpreted through the synthesis and organization that Nan contributed, allows each of us who were actually there to revisit it and reflect on it, but also invites others, who weren't present then, to participate in the uncertainty, openness, flexibility and creativity that characterized that summer planning discussion.

    We tend to not attend to the fact that our questions typically hold within themselves unacknowledged assumptions, in this case, assumptions about what it was important for children to know, about what the school-age children already did know, and about what the community member/teachers knew and cared about.

    Surfacing assumptions allows us to clarify, refine, and sharpen a query so that the process we engage in is more honest. So much work, particularly, with children, is driven by a barely visible 'do you know what I already know?' script. The process above brought us to genuine inquiry...insight and knowledge we could only learn together with the children themselves.

    1. Lani, thank you for the correction that Nan was scribe, but, truly, thanks go to the both of you for writing and saving the traces of this conversation. I am glad you have added to the conversation with your observations because it further demonstrates the many ways of drawing meaning and lessons from a conversation––one that is full of possibilities 8+ years later.