Thursday, April 5, 2018

Because a Good Question is Hard to Find

I love a really good question: chewy, shiny, juicy, provocative. Like a brilliant cup of coffee or morning pastry it makes my day.

A good question can be strategic or tactical; pedagogical, experiential, or operational; evaluative or reflective. Really good questions are like an itch. When we have been bitten by a good question, we simply have to come back to it again and again.

But really good questions are hard to find and have at the right moment. Gradually, however, I have realized that appreciating good questions has also helped me find more good questions. I notice questions in reading and interviews and I collect them. I write them down on scraps of paper and in notebook margins. I borrow and up-cycle promising questions. Sometimes I search stacks of sticky notes to get unstuck myself; frame a blog post, prepare for a workshop, or push my thinking. I occasionally suggest a question when someone’s process is off track and needs a reset. Framing questions has become my tool for thinking, learning, and working.

As our questions go, so goes our thinking, noticing, choosing, experimenting, and acting. Consequently thinking hard about what makes a really good question is thinking well spent. Yes, good questions are open-ended, but they are far more than that. They help us focus and get at more complex or inaccessible aspects of the world. They generate more questions. Asking, Who owns this place? easily prompts another one like, What can we do to increase a sense of ownership in our museum?

The questions that follow come from various sources: questions I have heard and read; borrowed and modified; constructed and revised. My appreciation goes to many, especially Lani, who forms many, good, strong, useful questions that reveal other questions. The questions I have selected are not only roomy, but help get at what we frequently miss until it's too late. They also help illustrate qualities of robust, productive questions. Perhaps they will invigorate your thinking about questions, offer a just-in-time question to hone, or start your list of really good questions.

Really good questions serve different functions. Some are openers, inviting exploration and opening dialogue. By asking, How can we develop an identity together as a group, or as a community? a question can initiate changes in how we see others, ourselves, or situations and create greater change. A question like, Whose agenda is it, any way? can challenge our thinking. Questions to invite analysis are different than ones to invite reflection. A question for sustained study will not help in deciding how to begin an experiment. Some questions, like, What makes a good stick? provoke thinking with their simplicity.

Seemingly small differences among questions matter. Questions get better when we take a close look, push on what is being said and not said, and compare. For instance, the question, What partners can we collaborate with to create a better version of our ideas and learn from? offers meaningful distinctions compared to, Who should we partner with on this project?

Frequently, questions nestle inside of other questions and we must look for those questions. Examining them uncovers assumptions and reveals lacking relevant or foundational knowledge. When we wonder, how can we serve families in our community, we might want to start by asking, What ideas do we have about families in this neighborhood?

So it’s not surprising that a really good question does not emerge full-blown but is developed by peering into it, pushing on its assumptions, honing it, and finding the right language for it. This circling around and through a question is explored in A Shiny Question. An initial question moves through four versions.
What do children learn in a neighborhood-based learning environment?
How do children become connected to the neighborhood?
How do children of different ages experience their community?
• Finally:  How are children of different ages and cultural groups building connections to their neighborhood through our community program?

Staying with a really good question is important because often we don’t know the answer to it. In fact, a really good question often is one that can’t be answered. What does your museum make possible? tugs at our thinking, encouraging us to back up and reexamine beliefs and aspirations. While challenging us to be compassionate, generous, and bold, (and imagine what that looks and feels like) we are not likely to come up with a crisp to-do list or measurable goals but we may have a stronger sense of what creates meaningful change.

We can end up with the same old answers unless we find new starting points. What does this mean? is a familiar question when we look at information gathered from observations and surveys. How much more thinking, discussion, and insight could emerge from asking, What is the deeper structure of these ideas? This may surface more thoughts about what lies beyond the obvious words, numbers, drawing, shapes, or activity that produced them.

An uncomfortably open question like, What is worth discovering? pushes us to consider new starting points as does, What is fascinating to children? We might ask, What are we not seeing in this situation or opportunity? when familiarity with a situation clouds our vision. On the other hand, asking What questions have I not asked that I should be asking? can help in navigating unfamiliar territory or exposing biases that hinder us.

Because we often confuse intention with achievement we need more productive questions. We want visitors to set challenges and take risks. We want them to care about climate change. Goals that insist this will happen because we plan for it are highly unlikely to be realized. However, a question that asks more of us and our thinking, like, How can we encourage and support visitors in setting their own challenges? may push us to imagine new ways of thinking about agency and engagement.

When we want to bring others’ perspectives into our thinking and planning, for instance in visitor experience planning, we might ask, What relevant competencies and questions do visitors bring with them to the museum that we are not thinking about? 

Often our thinking stops short of where we hope it will take us. Our team, department or partners may enjoy a deeply satisfying exploration about shared values or practices. Will it continue? To create new space we may need to ask, How can we keep our shared understandings open and moving, experimental, improvising?

Sometimes a rich and complex question emerges from dropping a single word. Consider, What are the rules? compared with What are rules? The latter opens a whole new line of exploration about who makes the rules and where they come from.

While asking a lot of questions is important, being alert to really good ones is critical. The more attuned we are to finding good questions, the more likely we’ll come across one that someone has thoughtfully honed and asked. Then it is ours to write down, revise, and polish. Ultimately, being inclined to refine a promising question to suit our purposes is the best way to answer the question: What makes a good question?


  1. Einstein conceived a number of thought experiments in support of his position that Quantum Mechanics was not a complete theory. In every case Bohr pointed to a conceptual flaw in Einstein's thought experiment. Einstein died before Bohr, but on the day of Bohr's death one of Einstein's "discredited" thought experiments was found illustrated on the chalk board in Bohr's office. So perhaps, what makes a good question is never being completely satisfied with your answer(s)...

  2. Brian, I think that's a great way to think of a good question: never being completely satisfied with your answers. Thinking, learning, understanding are always a work in progress. Thank you!