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December 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 4
The Learning Zone

The Beautiful Question

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Asking good questions can be a superpower—in coaching and in life.

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Professional LearningSchool Culture
The Beautiful Question
Credit: PAVEL KUKOL / SHUTTERSTOCK
"Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question."
—e.e. cummings, from introduction to New Poems (1938)
Years ago, I was on a break during a communications class I was coteaching with a colleague, Francis Gunn. We were drinking coffee and having lunch, and Francis turned to two businessmen who had sponsored the course and asked them a simple question: "You two must have had quite a few experiences together. What were some of your adventures?" That one question opened up the conversation like a key unlocking a treasure box. Our two colleagues told us one hilarious story after another about their exploits around the world. Such is the power of a good question.

What Makes for Good Questions

When I was writing The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching (ASCD, 2021), I looked at more than 50 books with information about asking questions. That research convinced me that asking good questions, as Francis Gunn did, is a life skill, not just a coaching skill. Our lives are lived in conversations, and when we ask better questions we have better conversations. Effective questions are:
Empowering. Good questions give power to the person who is asked the question, not the person asking it. If I ask someone I'm coaching a question like, "On a scale of 1–10, how close was that class to how you wanted it to go?" I'm not asking that teacher to guess what I think, I'm asking them to share their thoughts. Good questions signal that I think you have something worth saying, and I want to hear your opinion. They shine a light on our partner's comments, not on our thinking.
Authentic. Good questions are real questions, ones for which the questioner doesn't already have an answer. When I ask a real question, I ask it because I'm genuinely curious about my partner's answer, not because I am trying to get them to arrive at a conclusion I've already reached. One simple rule to make questions more authentic is to avoid asking questions for which "no" is a possible answer, as such a question is likely fishing for agreement rather than truly asking for another's thoughts, feelings, or opinions. If I ask, "Don't you think the students would be more engaged if you asked more open-ended questions?" I'm not really asking a question. I'm giving you advice and then putting a question mark at the end of it.
Respectful. Well-asked questions communicate our respect for others. One of my favorite questions comes from coaching expert Michael Bungay Stanier, who suggests asking, "I imagine you've thought a lot about this. How have you addressed issues like this in the past?" This question communicates that we know our conversation partner has good ideas and worthwhile thoughts, and we want to hear them.

Good questions are like intellectual fireworks, leading to explosions of ideas and learning.

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The opposite of a respectful question is one that communicates criticism or contempt, such as, "Why didn't you give the students more instruction before you had them do the group work?" Respectful questions build connection, while disrespectful questions sew distrust or division.
Invitational. What I refer to as invitational questions are sometimes called probing questions, but I don't like that term. I agree with researcher Irving Seidman, who writes that, with the word probe, "I always think of a sharp instrument pressing on soft flesh. … The word also conveys a sense of the powerful interviewer treating the participant as an object" (p. 86). I prefer invitational.
Invitational questions encourage participants to think deeper ("What leads you to believe ___?"), to generate more ideas ("What are some small steps you could take to move closer to your goal?"), or to access thoughts and feelings ("What will it feel like when your students hit their goal?)"

A Few of My Favorite Questions

When you pay attention to your questions, over time, you'll discover you have favorite questions, ones you ask often because they generate rich answers. I suggest you keep track of your favorite questions. Then, experiment: Ask different versions of these questions in different settings and notice the impact they have on your conversations. In the accompanying box, I've noted some of the favorite questions of coaches I know or whose work I read. Over time, I've learned that certain questions will move a conversation forward and in each interaction, I draw from my memory and ask some of those questions to open up the discussion.
Good questions are real manifestations of your curiosity and caring. Good questions are like intellectual fireworks, leading to explosions of ideas and more learning for the questioner and the conversation partner. I began this column with a quotation from the poet e.e. cummings, to the effect that beautiful questions lead to beautiful answers. I would say, similarly, that great questions lead to great conversations, which leads me to a final question: What's something you can do to deepen your ability to ask more empowering, authentic, respectful, and invitational questions?
A few educators' favorite questions

Instructional Coaching Guide

Jim Knight outlines seven "success factors" for great instructional coaching.

Instructional Coaching Guide
End Notes

1 Seidman, Irving. (2013). Interviewing as qualitative research: A guide for researchers in education and the social sciences. (4th Edition). Teachers College Press.

Jim Knight is a founding senior partner of the Instructional Coaching Group (ICG) and a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has spent more than two decades studying professional learning, effective teaching, and instructional coaching.

Knight has written several books and his articles on instructional coaching have been included in publications such as The Journal of Staff Development, Principal Leadership, The School Administrator, and Teachers Teaching Teachers.

He directs Pathways to Success, a comprehensive, district-wide school reform project in the Topeka, Kansas, School District and leads the Intensive Instructional Coaching Institutes and the Teaching Learning Coaching annual conference.

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