From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 12|No8|April|2003
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Questioning as Technology

by Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2002, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

This article appeared first in ORBIT, Vol. 32 , No. 4, 2002.

Questions and questioning may be the most powerful technologies of all.

© 2002, FNO Press

Questioning.Org is devoted to classroom questions and questioning.

North American schools are spending billions bringing networked computers into schools while neglecting the most important technology of all – the ability of students to make meaning by applying sharply honed questioning skills.1

This article contends that questions and questioning (mindware) are critically important human technologies that might enable young people to solve problems, make smart decisions and score well on the tests of life as well all the other tests that loom in a child’s world. Without strong questioning skills, information technologies contribute little to understanding or insight. There is even some chance that they might dilute understanding and interfere with thinking.

Part One explores the importance of questioning while warning against an upsurge of Mentalsoftness™. Part Two proposes a major expansion of school research activities to emphasize daily questioning, exploration and independent thought.

Part One - What is so important about questions and questioning?

Questions allow young people to make sense of their worlds and to take action smartly. They are the most powerful tools we have for making decisions and solving problems - for inventing, changing and improving our lives as well as the lives of others.

Questioning is central to learning, growing and acting. An unquestioning mind is condemned to “feeding” on the ideas and solutions of others. An unquestioning mind may have little defense against the data smog so typical of life in this information age.2 An unquestioning mind is too much like a rudderless sloop swept along by storm swelled currents.

In a democratic society, questions empower citizens to challenge authority to do the most good for the most people.

In a fascist society, questions and questioning are viewed with suspicion. Questions are discouraged unless they remain within “safe” zones such as science and technology. In the popular children’s series, Harry Potter is denied the right to ask questions by foster parents who find his asking threatening and disrespectful.

Questions enable the next generations to make changes in society, to invent new and better ways of doing things. They are the “mindware” that enable us to weigh the value of other tools, determining the best uses for computers, networks, databases, books and other media.

Life is such a puzzle - countless fragments confounding us like a huge jigsaw laid out on the table of our lives.

Each day we return to the table. We struggle to move the pieces around until some picture emerges, until we discover a pattern or a trend, until we can make sense of nonsense. We wrestle with the information flow and flux. We squint. We frown. We dig. We probe. We sift and sort.

We reach into our questioning toolkit to find the right net, lasso or scalpel to bring us closer to some truth3 that may serve us well – provided we have a sufficient toolkit to address the challenge with some skill.

The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Because the new information landscape is streaming by at supersonic speeds, we find ourselves working overtime to “get our minds around” the essential issues, trends and data of our times. Making meaning is harder than ever before.

Supersonic speeds? We open our e-mail and watch a stream of messages flow into our mailboxes. Some of them are correspondence, some of them spam and many of them information “alerts” we have set in motion by subscribing to many of the services that may be tailored to our interests and needs. It is hard to keep up with this torrent.

Quick fixes, wizards and templates abound as substitutes for deeper understanding, but the ultimate answer to information abundance and degradation is unrelenting pondering and questioning. The better we are at interpreting the data and challenging the assumptions behind them, the greater our chances of handling the riddles, the conundrums and the paradoxes that are so prevalent. Questions make it possible.

I. Coping with Info-Glut and Charlatans

We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.

Jean Baudrillard
Simulacra and Simulation, 1981

When students turn to their desktops for information, they often find millions of documents within a single “mouse click.” Are they worth reading? Will they satisfy their curiosity? Cast light on their biggest concerns?

Looking for financial projections? The future of the stock market? The health of our economy? They uncover thousands. Many were created by amateurs and writers with doubtful credentials. Many predictions contradict the augury of others. Divination is widely practiced but poorly supervised. The Greeks may have done better with their omens, with their seers, prophets and soothsayers, but we must “suffer fools” and wade through the fortune telling and visioning of prophets who are both unlicensed and unschooled.

How can students sort and sift their way past the charlatans and self anointed frauds of this new electronic marketplace? How will they protect themselves from the deceitful?

For those who work in schools, how do we raise young people capable of finding their way through this maze?

Powerful questioning is the answer.

Powerful questioning leads to Information Power4 - the ability to use information to fashion solutions, decisions and plans that are original, cogent, practical and effective.

When students come to a Web page or an online article, they should immediately ask who put it there and whether their ideas can be trusted. They must also challenge the author of a book. What is their background? their experience? their bias? their funding? their track record? their reputation?5

None of us can be expert in everything. To some extent we must rely upon others to help us interpret the world, but we must also be wary of “experts” lacking in wisdom, discretion or reliability. We cannot take the time to conduct original, primary source research each time we look for good ideas. We must turn to the sages.

Prior to the Internet, “experts” usually had to pay dues and win various licenses or credentials. It was difficult to win “air time” without passing through some kind of scrutiny or review.

The Internet has made the life of charlatans much easier. We find Web sites proudly dispensing hogwash and blather of the worst kind - history that isn’t history and medicine that isn’t medicine.

We open e-mail “stock tips” from spammers who are paid to recommend securities. We visit search engines and directories that spotlight information that has paid for “shelf space.” In the 1950s, this was called “payola” and thought of as bribery. At the start of this new century it is a simple fact of e-commerce that advice is often tainted by conflicts of interests and questionable partnerships.

We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species.

Desmond Morris

II. Matters of Definition

Why have we allowed technology companies to misappropriate the word “technology,” applying it primarily to tools that plug into the wall and operate on electrical power? Why do we create a special subject area in schools separate from the real classrooms and call it “technology?” Why do we set up skill listings, tests and outcome statements that encourage the use of electronic tools apart from curriculum content?

In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined.

Thomas Szasz

How can anyone justify spreadsheeting divorced from real questions as a worthwhile endeavor? or PowerPointing? or Internetting?

Yet we see this trendy approach to information, to technologies and (almost accidentally) to learning sweeping through schools with little opposition or concern. Being good at technology, we are assured, is crucial if we wish a comfortable future for our children. If they stand a chance at a dotcom job, so the reasoning goes, then they need to be good at technology.

Definitions help to sell product. They carve out territory. They help to establish turf. They focus the spotlight. They shape budgets and priorities. And they sometimes distort planning.

III. Simple Answers to Complex Questions

In all too many cases, the questioning process has been reduced and oversimplified to a search for prepackaged answers. Artificial intelligence abounds.

Questions are intended to provoke thought and inspire reflection, but all too often the process is short circuited by the simple answer, the quick truth or the appealing placebo.

With the advent of new electronic technologies, our young people are threatened by a weakening of thought and an emphasis on the glib or superficial. Mentalsoftness™ is a new social “virus” that is rarely noticed. We hear complaints of a “new plagiarism,” but few commentators remark upon the ascendancy of superficial thought.6

Prime Indicators of MentalSoftness™
1. Fondness for clichés and clichéd thinking - simple statements that are time worn, familiar and likely to carry surface appeal.
2. Reliance upon maxims - truisms, platitudes, banalities and hackneyed sayings - to handle demanding, complex situations requiring thought and careful consideration.
3. Appetite for bromides - the quick fix, the easy answer, the sugar coated pill, the great escape, the short cut, the template, the cheat sheet.
4. Preference for platitudes - near truths, slogans, jingles, catch phrases and buzzwords.
5. Vulnerability to propaganda, demagoguery and mass movements based on appeals to emotions, fears and prejudice.
6. Impatience with thorough and dispassionate analysis.
7. Eagerness to join some crowd or mob or other - wear, do and think what is fashionable, cool, hip, fab, or the opposite or whatever . . .
8. Hunger for vivid and dramatic packaging.
9. Fascination with the story, the play, the drama, the show, the episode and the epic rather than the idea, the question, the argument, the premise, the logic or the substance. We're not talking good stories or song lines here. We're talking pulp fiction.
10. Enchantment with cults, personalities, celebrities, chat, gossip, hype, speculation, buzz and blather.

We know that the most important questions in life defy such formulaic responses. We also know that recipe books require frequent revision in times of rapid change. Strong questioning skills fuel and steer the inventive process required to “cook up” something new. Without such skills, our students become prisoners of conventional wisdom and the trend or bandwagon of the day.

Synthesis - the development of new possibilities by modifying and rearranging elements - cannot be managed without analysis - the probing, questioning process that explores the underlying principles, characteristics and possibilities of any given situation. Analysis is the underpinning of new thinking and wise choices.

If we hope to see inventive thought infused with critical judgment, questions and questioning must become a priority of schooling and must gain recognition as a supremely important technology. We must lay aside the forked branches of earlier times, the divining rods of soothsayers, technologists and futurists. Rather than reading the entrails or taking the omens to determine the future, we wield powerful questions as tools to construct a future of our own choosing.

Part Two – Making Questioning and Questions
Central to Schooling

Once you have learned how to ask relevant and appropriate questions, you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner
Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Smart questions are essential technology for those who venture onto the Information Highway.

Without strong questioning skills, students are mere passengers on someone else's tour bus. They may be on the highway, but someone else is doing the driving.

Without strong questioning skills, students are unlikely to exercise profitable search strategies that enable them to cut past the info-glut, info-garbage and info-glitz that all too often impede the search for Insight.

Sometimes this new information landscape seems more like Eliot's Wasteland than a library, more like a yard sale than a gold mine. The weaker the questioning and learning skills, the less value one is likely to discover or uncover.

Schools without a strong commitment to student questioning and research are wasting their money if they install expensive networks linking classrooms to rich electronic information resources.

As long as schools are primarily about teaching rather than learning, there is little need for expanded information capabilities. Since many schools and publishers have spent decades compressing and compacting human knowledge into efficient packages and delivery systems like textbooks and lectures, they may not be prepared for a new information landscape that calls for independent thinking, exploration, invention and intuitive navigation.

If districts do not commit as much as 25 per cent of their hardware expenditures to curriculum revision and staff development with a focus upon student questioning and research, they are likely to suffer from the Screensaver Disease.7

I. Prime Questions

Which questions matter most?

Most important thinking requires one of these three Prime Questions:

1. Why?

“Why do things happen the way they do?”

This question requires analysis of cause-and-effect and the relationship between variables. It leads naturally to problem-solving (the How question) or to decision-making (the Which is best? question.)

“Why?” is the favorite question of four-year-olds.

It is the basic tool for figuring stuff out.

At one point while researching student questioning in one prominent district, I found “Why?” occurred most often in kindergarten classrooms and least often in the high school (which had the highest SAT scores in the state.)

“Why does the sun fall each day?”
“Why does the rain fall?”
“Why do some people throw garbage out their car windows?”
“Why do some people steal?”
“Why do some people treat their children badly?”
“Why can't I ask more questions in school?”

2. How?

“How could things be made better?”

This question is the basis for problem-solving and synthesis.

Using questions to pull and change things around until a new, better version emerges.

“How?” is the inventor's favorite question.

“How?” is the tool that fixes the broken furnace and changes the way we get cash from a bank.

“How?” inspires the software folks to keep sending us upgrades and hardware folks to create faster chips.

“How?” is the question that enables the suitor to capture his or her lover's heart.

“How?” is the reformer's passion and the hero's faith.

3. Which?

“Which do I select?”

This question requires thoughtful decision-making - a reasoned choice based upon explicit (clearly stated) criteria and evidence.

“Which?” is the most important question of all because it determines who we become.

“Which school or trade will I pick for myself?”

“Which path will I follow?”

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

Robert Frost

Faced with a moral dilemma, “Which path will I follow?”

Confronted by a serious illness, “Which treatment will I choose for myself?”

II. What happens in most schools?

There have always been plenty of questions in schools, but most of them have come from the teacher, often at the rate of one question every 2-3 seconds.

Unfortunately, these rapid fire questions are not the questions we need to encourage because they tend to be RECALL questions rather than questions requiring higher level thought.

The most important questions of all are those asked by students as they try to make sense out their worlds. These are the questions that enable students to make up their own minds.

Powerful questions - smart questions, if you will - are the foundation for Information Power8, Engaged Learning9 and Information Literacy10.

Sadly, most studies of classroom exchanges in the past few decades report that student questions are an endangered species. (Goodlad, 1984: Sizer, 1984, Hyman, 1980; etc.)11

Information-savvy schools should adopt a basic questioning toolkit and then blend it explicitly into each curriculum area where such skills belong. This toolkit should be printed in large type on posters that reside on classroom walls close by networked, information-rich computers.

Portions of the questioning toolkit should be introduced as early as Kindergarten so that students bring powerful questioning technologies and techniques with them as they arrive in high school.

A full description of these question types is available at and is also outlined in Beyond Technology (McKenzie, 2000) available at FNO Press.

III. Make Research and Questioning a Daily Expectation

Unless the school makes research and questioning central, the networked technology will be used rarely and tangentially, with a tendency toward special events and trivia rather than bread and butter issues. Rank and file teachers want to see more than virtual field trips and fanciful tours of distant continents. They want to see activities that pay off in higher scores and better performance.

The first step is to make research a daily event in every child’s life, not just something that happens once a year in February or March when we suddenly devote several weeks to a state project. Research is the best practice for the kinds of questioning and reasoning described earlier.

While there are many ways to increase the frequency of student investigations, the following three strategies are offered as examples of possibilities.

A. The Year Long Project - “Five Hundred Miles”

Each student starts the year by identifying a leader, a celebrity, a crisis, a hobby or some other aspect of life that interests them enough to devote nine months to its study.

Each student becomes an expert on her or his subject and is ultimately expected to convert the expertise into an authentic product.

Elements of a Year Long Research Project
1. Selection - Each student settles on one field of interest and identifies one particular aspect worthy of tracking.

2. Questioning - Rather than gathering all information regarding the subject, the student will form key questions so that only pertinent information is retained.

3. Storage - This is an opportunity to design an efficient information storage and retrieval system so that the student can sort, sift and interpret even after collecting hundreds of records.

4. Prospecting - Early in the project, the student surveys the information landscape and identifies all relevant, reliable sites. If possible, the student sets up an automated flow (push technology).

5. Monitoring - The student keeps an eye on daily and weekly developments, periodically visiting sites that have expanding resources but no “alert” capability. The student frequently updates sources as new ones emerge or old ones fold.

6. Responding to inquiries - The student has a chance to demonstrate expertise by responding to questions from peers and others either personally or through e-mail.

7. Creating a product - The student shares insight by developing a product of some kind related to the subject. The product should require original thought, data compression and synthesis.

A full description of how to manage such projects is online at

B. Essential Questions in Every Unit

Each time a teacher introduces a new unit, the class is shown five or more essential questions and asked to explore one of them during the unit or build one of her or his own (subject to teacher approval).

These are questions that touch our hearts and souls. They are central to our lives. They help to define what it means to be human.12

Most important thought during our lives will center on such essential questions.

If we were to draw a cluster diagram of the Questioning Toolkit, essential questions would be at the center of all the other types of questions.

All the other questions and questioning skills serve the purpose of "casting light upon" or illuminating essential questions.

Most essential questions are interdisciplinary in nature. They cut across the lines created by schools and scholars to mark the terrain of departments and disciplines.

Essential questions probe the deepest issues confronting us . . . complex and baffling matters which elude simple answers: Life - Death - Marriage - Identity - Purpose - Betrayal - Honor - Integrity - Courage - Temptation - Faith - Leadership - Addiction - Invention - Inspiration.

The greatest novels, the greatest plays, the greatest songs and the greatest paintings all explore Essential Questions in some manner.

Essential questions are at the heart of the search for Truth.

Essential questions offer the organizing focus for a unit. If the history class will spend a month on a topic such as Western settlement, students explore the events and the experience with a mind toward casting light upon one of the following questions, or they develop Essential Questions of their own . . .

Why do people move onto other people's lands?

Are there any decent and good ways to settle on other people's lands?

In what cases did Canadian settlements violate and damage local peoples?

How can humans avoid conflicts between cultures that lead to pain, suffering, destruction and death?

Some say Canada still has unfinished business with regard to settlement. In what ways might this claim be true and in what ways untrue? What evidence can you supply to substantiate your case?

If you were Prime Minister, what programs and policies would you set in motion to address issues that linger with regard to settlement?

C. The Daily Research Question

Each day begins with students walking into the classroom to note an intriguing research question on the board - puzzles, riddles and curious questions that can be answered reasonably well without months of study. These should require some thought and ingenuity, not be mere trivial pursuits. They should be highly motivating and captivating.

Scoring High on Provincial and State Tests

Frequent practice on challenging questions prepares students to handle the inferential reasoning now required by most of the new provincial tests tied to tough curriculum standards.13

Every Student Skilled at Questioning

To be a successful thinker, reader and writer, each student must know how to make skillful use of a questioning toolkit - a set of questioning strategies that will make it possible to explore the most important questions of life.

In these days of gleaming desktops and, one rarely thinks of questions as technology, but the main antidote to Mentalsoftness™ is powerful, unrelenting questioning.

End Notes

1. In Technology in Education 1999. Market Data Retrieval estimates U.S. school technology spending at $5.5 billion in 1998-99.

2. David Schenk describes the threats posed by too much information in Data Smog: Coping with Info-Glut. (1997) New York: Harper Edge.

3. Truth is written here in lower case to signify a personal rather than universal notion. One woman’s truth may be another person’s lie.

4. Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning is also the name of a 1998 publication by the American Association of School Librarians and the Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

5. Kathy Schrock offers an excellent list of Web evaluation tools at

6. “The New Plagiarism,” From Now On, May, 1998.

7. We are talking about the educational equivalent of educational red ink - the observable failure of schools to actually use their expensive network or computers to any meaningful extent because they are not seen as part of the school's primary mission. In all too many places that mission is defined primarily in terms of covering the curriculum (rapidly) and preparing students to score well on various state tests.

8. Information Power is a 1998 publication mentioned earlier.

9. Engaged Learning is a model developed by Barbara Means and others that places a premium on students working in teams to solve problems with well developed strategies.

10. There are many different models for information literacy. One of the best reviews of these models is Information Literacy: a Review of the Research by David Loertscher and Blanche Woolls. Hi Willow Research and Publishing, 1999.

11. Goodlad, J. (1984). A Place Called School. Hightstown, NJ: McGraw-Hill. Sizer, Theodore. (1984). Horace’s Compromise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Hyman, R. (1980). “Fielding Student Questions.” Theory into Practice; 1, pp. 38-44.

12. The initial work on essential questions was done by Grant Wiggins and others during the 1980s in association with the Coalition of Essential Schools. Valuable resources may be found at

13. An expanded explanation of these strategies is available online in “Scoring High,” in the April, 1999 issue of From Now On at

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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