Getting Started Asking the Right Questions

Recently on a homework assignment for my Natural Science course, I asked students to identify which solar system planets it would be possible to explore from Earth-based telescopes, which from space-born but Earth-orbit telescopes (like the Hubble), and which would require space probes sent to the planet. The results were fairly telling about the approaches students take to open-ended questions. Several students left the question blank, because (as they explained in emails and chat), they “couldn’t find the answer” in the assigned reading. Most students explained in very generic terms that while Venus and Mars (closest to Earth) could be viewed from Earth-based or Earth-orbit satellites, more distant objects would require probes. None addressed the question of Earth-based vs. Earth-orbit telescopes implied by listing the two options, and only one considered planetary characteristics other than distance, and identified Venus as a candidate for a probe because its dense atmosphere blocks any attempt to view its surface from Earth-bound telescopes.

Although I had warned the students repeatedly that some of their homework questions would require them to think through the answer and not simply look it up, at least some of my students felt this was unfair: they couldn’t be held responsible for what they couldn’t not look up and quote from the assigned reading. Most of my students were game to tackle the question even without finding the words “we can use telescopes to look at Mars but need probes for Pluto” in their reading, but they still did not study the question carefully enough to realize they needed to think about the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and consider the individual planet itself, as criteria for determining the best method of observation. They immediately seized on finding a single uniform answer, which would let them complete the assignment quickly, without worrying too much about whether the situation was more complicated.

From the perspective of classical education, this is backward, because classical education, and in particular Christian classical education, is not fundamentally about finding right answers to practical questions. Its goal is to develop the skills required by a free citizen who would be responsible for discerning God’s will, then making decisions for himself and for the state. It recognizes that there is no set formula for “getting the right answer” to the questions of real life; the most important first step is to make sure we can even formulate or recognize the important questions. Then we can look at how these questions (or ones like them) have been answered before, in literature and in history. Although Greek philosophy in particular developed rigorous methods of rational analysis, classical education still depends on story to convey the complexity of real decisions in real circumstances. Greek drama and history constantly throw out examples where individuals must decide between personal integrity, duty to the gods, and duty to the state. Latin literature is full of examples of individuals who sacrifice themselves to fulfill their civic duty. The Greeks and Romans of the classical period studied their own history, read their own literature, and produced often conflicting philosophical reflections because they realized that determining the right questions to ask was a citizen’s responsibility, and it was no use seeking answers until one had the right questions.

St. Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromata calls rational philosophy God’s divine gift to the Greeks, identifying direct revelation as God’s gift to the Jews. The early Christian Fathers, like Clement, who found inspiration in and supported the study of pagan classical literature recognized the development of reason and logic as an important skill in witnessing to and defending the Christian faith — and for distinguishing important questions that were worth pursuing from questions that were merely divisive and distracting. For nearly twenty centuries, western civilization depended on these stories and philosophies to help students form the values that would let them determine the wisest course in a difficult situation, both for themselves and for those they were expected to govern: personal integrity, loyalty, charity, civic duty, duty to God. The questions it forces us to ask are the most important questions of our lives: who am I? what do I want? what is God calling me to do?

If classical Christian education is about questions, then, how do we get students to learn to formulate or recognize the questions they need to ask? And equally important, how do we get them to develop passion for their studies and the courage to overcome the sense that asking questions is somehow an admission of failure to study correctly?

I believe that we need to make asking questions the most important job a student has to do: not completing the homework, not skimming the reading, but thinking deeply about the ideas they encounter and formulating questions about them. Every student (and teacher) needs to come to class full of questions. We meet in discussion to bring up these questions and to hear each other’s questions. As a teacher, I usually have a stock set of questions for a given chat to get the ball rolling, but these are based on my own experience and my own values and they are essentially “plan B” material for the chat. The most successful discussions occur when the students raise questions about their own understanding, based on their own concerns. When they voice those questions and we explore possible answers, we all find new ways of thinking about the material, and new insight on the questions that pester us.

While ultimately we need to address the important questions of our lives, we have to start somewhere, so here are some of the questions even novice students ought to be asking themselves constantly as they read both factual material and literature. Most important, to put this into practice, students should be writing down notes to bring up in class if they are puzzled or don’t have answers, or want to test their own assumptions:

Do I know what all the words mean? Does a term (even if I know its dictionary definition) seem vague or misapplied to the topic? Do all the parts of this graph or illustration make sense and can I see how they are related?

Can I follow all the steps of an example? Do I know what all the assumptions are, and how they are justified? Can I follow the calculation or reasons given for making a conclusion?

Is the author making an argument for a general conclusion or interpretation? Is the author’s claim valid? Do I understand the evidence used to support it? Does it apply to the cases given? Is it too general? too narrow? Can I think of any contradictory examples?

If several things are described, what characteristics, values, or processes are used to distinguish them? Do I understand how these distinctions are made, and can I use these methods myself to make distinctions among similar things?

If a process is described, can I follow the process? If not, why not — where do I get confused? If I do understand the process, do I accept it as valid, or do I think it skips important steps or considerations?

What does the author think are the most important points to make or take away from his or her presentation? What criteria does he or she use to make this evaluation (and do I agree)?  Can I make an outline of the important points and identify the supporting details? Does the author skip points I think are important? Can I figure out why — what values or assumptions am I making differently from those the author is making?

If I am translating a sentence or a paragraph, does my English translation make sense in English? Does it reflect something an intelligent person would say, or is it gibberish? Do I understand what each word means and how it functions in the sentence?

These questions force us to be honest with ourselves in two ways. One is making sure that we actually engage with the materials, not just pass our eyes over the reading, and that we seriously  attempt to comprehend the knowledge presented. The second is making sure that we are also applying our own developing system of values to what we are learning, that we are not simply agreeing blindly to what is presented, but trying to develop ways to determine for ourselves what is right, pure, lovely, admirable, and worthy of praise.

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