From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 7|No 3|November-December|1997


 A Questioning Toolkit continued . . .

Different types of questions accomplish different tasks and help us to build up our answers in different ways.

We must show our students the features of each type of question so they know which combination to employ with the essential question at hand. We don't want them reaching into their toolkit blindly, grasping the first question which comes to mind.

No sense grabbing a screw driver when a wrench is needed. No use seizing the hammer when a saw is required. We want them to reach for the question which matches the job.

Hypothetical Questions - These are questions designed to explore possibilities and test relationships. They usually project a theory or an option out into the future, wondering what might happen if . . .
Suppose the earth had no moon.
What if the South had won the Civil War?

Hypothetical Questions are especially helpful when trying to decide between a number of choices or when trying to solve a problem.

When we began to generate questions which would help us decide whether or not to offer e-mail accounts to our students, we asked . .

What's the worst that might happen?
What are the potential benefits?

Hypothetical Questions are useful when we want to see if our hunches, our suppositions and our hypotheses have any merit.


Telling Questions lead us (like a smart bomb) right to the target. They are built with such precision that they provide sorting and sifting during the gathering or discovery process. They focus the investigation so that we gather only the very specific evidence and information we require, only those facts which "cast light upon" or illuminate the main question at hand.
In schools which give students e-mail accounts, what is the rate of suspension for abusing the privilege?
In schools which give students e-mail accounts, what percentage of students lose their privilege during each of the first ten months? second ten months?

The better the list of telling questions generated by the researcher, the more efficient and pointed the subsequent searching and gathering process. A search strategy may be profoundly shifted by the development of telling questions.

As you can see below . . . students trying to rank the relative safety of ten cities in the Heartland will have greater success with their search if they translate their general question about crime (Which city is safest?) into a Telling Question (What is the violent crime rate for cities in New England as reported by the Federal Bureau of Justice and how has it changed over the past ten years?).

This would tend to be true whether they were searching on the free Internet or using an electronic encyclopedia or a pay-for-service collection of new articles. The addition of precise elements to a search can radically reduce wasteful wandering.

Search for General Question
crime AND cities AND "Midwest"
Search for Telling Question
"violent crime rate" AND cities AND "Midwest" AND "Federal Bureau of Justice"


Planning Questions lift us above the action of the moment and require that we think about how we will structure our search, where we will look and what resources we might use such as time and information. If we were sailing West on a square masted ship, we would pass off the wheel and the lines to team-mates in order to climb to the "crow's nest" - a lofty perch from which we could look "over the horizon."

Too many researchers, be they student or adult, make the mistake of burying their noses in their studies and their sources. They have trouble seeing the forest, so close do they stand to the pine needles. They are easily lost in a thicket of possibilities.

The effective researcher develops a plan of action in response to Planning Questions like these:


  • Who has done the best work on this subject?
  • Which group may have gathered the best information?
  • Which medium (Internet, CD-ROM, electronic periodical collection, scholarly book, etc.) is likely to provide the most reliable and relevant information with optimal efficiency?
  • Which search tool or index will speed the discovery process?


  • What are all of the tasks which need completing in order to generate a credible product which offers fresh thought backed by solid evidence and sound thinking?
  • What is the best way to organize these tasks over time? How much time is available? Which tasks come first, and then . . .?
  • Which tasks depend upon others or cannot be completed until others are finished?


  • How much time is available for this project?
  • How long does it take to complete each of the tasks required?
  • How much time can be applied to each task?
  • Do some tasks require more care and attention than others?
  • Can some tasks be rushed?
  • Is it possible to complete the project in the time available?
  • How should the plan be changed to match the time resources?


 Organizing Questions make it possible to structure our findings into categories which will allow us to construct meaning. Without these structures we suffer from hodge podge and mish mash - information collections akin to trash heaps and landfills, large in mass, lacking in meaning. The less structure we create in the beginning, the harder it becomes later to find patterns and relationships in the fragments or the collection of bits and pieces.

If we are trying to compare and contrast three cities (or three products or three bills or three artists) we might use our criteria and our telling questions as the basis for the fields and the entries in our database. Or we may develop a word processing file around these criteria and questions which becomes the collecting mechanism for our findings.

Cities Database






Each time we come upon valuable findings, we extract the relevant data and place them where they belong. If we find facts about the violent crime rate in Hartford, for example, we enter them along with their source as a record in the database which might look something like this . . .

Cities Database
Source  Money Online: Best Places: Money ranks the 300 biggest places - URL:
Subject Portland Crime 
Keywords  violent crime rate
Abstract 270.5 per 100,000 people vs. 716 National average






Our challenge is teaching students to paraphrase, condense and then place their findings thoughtfully rather than cutting and pasting huge blocks of text which have been unread, undigested and undistilled.


The Questioning Toolkit Continued . . .

Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings, photographs and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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