The   question is the answer.

Creating Research Programs
for An Age of Information

by Jamie McKenzie




"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 on to the Information Highway.

Without strong questioning skills, you are just a passenger on someone else's tour bus. You may be on the highway, but someone else is doing the driving.

Without strong questioning skills, you are unlikely to exercise profitable search strategies which allow you to cut past the Info-Glut Info-Garbage and Info-Glitz which 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. Considering the reality that 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 this New Information Landscape which calls for independent thinking, exploration, invention and intuitive navigation.

If districts do not commit as much as ten 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*

    *We are talking about the educational equivalent of 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.


Which Questions Matter?

Most important thinking requires one of these three

Prime Questions

Why? How? Which?



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 (constructivist learning). At one point while researching student questions in one school 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?



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 which 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 which enables the suitor to capture his or her lover's heart. How is the reformer's passion and the hero's faith.


Which is best?

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?





Most studies report that student questions are an endangered species.


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 of data and information. These are the questions which enable students to Make Up Their Own Minds.

Powerful questions - Smart Questions, if you will - are the foundation for Information Power, Engaged Learning and Information Literacy.

Sadly, most studies of classroom exchanges in the past few decades report that student questions have been an endangered species for quite some time. (Goodlad, Sizer, Hyman, etc.)

Information-savvy schools should adopt a basic questioning toolkit and then blend it explicitly into each curriculum area where such skills belong.

A Questioning Toolkit

Each district should create a Questioning Toolkit which contains several dozen kinds of questions and questioning tools. This Questioning Toolkit should be printed in large type on posters which 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 can bring powerful questioning technologies and techniques with them as they arrive in high school.

   Essential Questions
   Elaborating Questions
   Clarification Questions
   Irrelevant Questions
   Irreverent Questions
   Hypothetical Questions
   Unanswerable Questions
   Strategic Questions
   Provocative Questions
   Telling Questions
   Divergent Questions
   Probing Questions
   Inventive Questions
   Planning Questions