Newsletter for July 2009: Caffeine for our curiosity

September 8th, 2009

I love good coffee. Every morning I brew up a couple cups of my home roasted beans. Amazing things happen. I form sentences. I’m engaged with the day!

Good questions are caffeine for curiosity, an essential component for engaging teens. Curiosity is an appetite to see and understand. It’s constructive confusion. Too often we provide answers. There is no confusion and therefore no curiosity. By asking good questions–questions that spring forth from our own curiosity–we cultivate fertile ground for learning and positive change.

But all questions are not alike. Basic communication classes teach that a good question is an open-ended question: one beginning with what, how, when, why, and where. Those questions one can answer with yes or no are not good questions, or so goes the rule.

But here’s a conundrum: Open-ended questions are not always good questions and close-ended questions can be brilliant. “What are the three most common sexually transmitted diseases?” These kinds of questions drive students to a prepared, static answer. Now consider how a close-ended (yes/no) question can open conversation: “Do you have a safety plan if you ever feel like your life is threatened?” Imagine the kinds of great questions that might flow from this close-ended question.

Divergent questions that encourage exploration, not a pat answer, are most likely to increase student curiosity. Synthesis and understanding are important. But answers are most meaningful when preceded by divergent exploration. Divergence allows us to explore the context that surrounds our topic, leading to deeper understanding. Too often we bypass this crucial process.

Before signing off I want to underscore that convergent questions are not implicitly bad. “Is everyone understanding what we’re talking about?” is an example of a very helpful convergent question. But divergent questions are caffeine for our curiosity. My hope is that we will be more aware of the types of questions we ask and how we use them in the course of learning. We’re always moving with students from abstract to concrete and back again. Questions are trusted guides for this process.

The next time you observe your staff (or yourself) working with teens, I encourage you to try the following:

On a blank piece of paper create a column for divergent questions and a column for convergent questions.

1) Tally how many questions the educator asks in each category.

2) Note how the educator uses convergent and divergent questions.

3) Note how students responded to the questions.

Push yourself to ask better questions and you will see student curiosity increased. It’s better than Red Bull!

It’s great to be working with you to promote positive change in the lives of young people.



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