What are the “right” questions?
Ask yourself this: do the potential answers to this question provide any value?
During my years in the Marine Corps I was constantly attending training. I saw hundreds of instructors and almost as many teaching styles; it was a 20-year accidental learning lab for how to do and how not to do instruction and training. One constant I observed was that many instructors (myself included) did not ask ‘thoughtful’ questions. In other words, many time the questions we asked were procedural place-holders; not much thought was put into them and we didn’t get any value out of asking them.
Thoughtful and valuable questions will do (at least) these four things:
- help students gain information they didn’t grasp during the discussion
- help teachers get feedback about how well the audience is processing the information
- show the teacher how well they are conveying the salient points to the students
- show the instructor where they need to improve the material and presentation
A question’s value is in its potential answer. Ask questions that have value in their answers.
(REAL-TIME NOTE DAY 1: AS I WRITE THIS POST I AM TEACHING A THREE-DAY COURSE FOR JUNIOR MANAGERS. SO FAR, WE ARE NOT CONNECTING…)
Wait; am I still shouting?
Poorly planned questions or throwaway questions will often sound like this: “Is everyone tracking?!”
There is something to be gained by shouting that out to 100 people practicing a simple task or baby-stepping through the crawl stage of a ‘crawl-walk-run’ process. There is specific motivational value in shouting encouraging “questions” to a group; it can inspire the students and the instructor.
But if you are trying to determine if your audience is grasping important concepts, how does it help the six people who aren’t “tracking”? How does it help you identify those people and improve your process?
Even a great instructor will have three people in a group of 50 that need more information or guidance. Ill-conceived questions are framed from the perspective that everyone is tracking. (They will only build up the instructor’s confidence and ego.) An insightful instructor asks questions that help uncover those areas that still need to be addressed. Pose questions to your audience with the mindset that you did not successfully reach everyone. Now you are using a humble & realistic perspective. With this as your starting point, you will find ways to effectively reach out to those students that still need some attention.
So, at this point that I suppose I should choose between, “Is everyone good to go?!”, and “What would you say is one key point that we discussed during our first minute together today?
(REAL-TIME NOTE DAY 2: TWO DAYS ARE GONE AND I CANNOT PENETRATE THEIR SHIELDS!)
An engineer named Marty…
Martin Cooper was an engineer at Motorola working on the next generation of car radiotelephones when he asked an extraordinary question: “why do we have to call a place when we really want to talk to a person?” The answers to that question would lead him to develop the first portable cell phone in 1973 and forever change the personal communication landscape.
Martin Cooper used that question as the jumping-off point for changing the world. He took action.
So now you are investing some time and thought into questions that are giving you valuable information. Students are telling you more about how you and the material are impacting them. Those answers will point directly to your presentation, the curriculum, the instructors, the sequence of events, etc. They are pointing to where you can make improvements in all of the above. What are you going to do about it?
Write down the information you are getting from your audience, reflect on all of it, find the trends and friction points and turn them into action items.
Be like Marty-ask great questions, then take action!
(REAL-TIME NOTE DAY 3: I HAVE AN “AH-HA!” MOMENT. I ASK A THOUGHTFUL QUESTION FRAMED IN A RELEVANT ANALOGY, AND …THEY TALK TO ME.)
We can do this
It took me until late Thursday to salvage the student-teacher rapport in my course. For the first two days, I had blown it big time. I was looking at their faces and body language and racking my brain looking for a connection, when I reflected on a personal experience I had as a student. In about three seconds I understood where the disconnect was coming from. I addressed it, we started communicating much better and we moved forward with some success.
You will not hit the mark every time. You will not always get a gold mine of information. And like my interaction this week, you will have failures. Reflect on each of them, digest the lesson and press on. You have to be on your A-game to design the right questions into the instruction, then execute your plan-and also be ready to ‘shoot from the hip’. The right questions are worth the effort because they have valuable answers. They will make you a more effective instructor and add an important layer to the foundation of an encouraging learning environment.
Ask the right questions, absorb the answers and teach with a purpose so your audience wins.