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Question Courageously

“Questioning—deeply, imaginatively, “beautifully”—can help us identify and solve problems, come up with game-changing ideas, and pursue fresh opportunities.”

- Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question

advantages and disadvantages of open and closed questions

advantages and disadvantages of open and closed questions

In this age of constant change and reinvention, questioning is extremely important. We should be teaching it as a the ultimate survival skill to our students and also practicing it as we invent the future of libraries and academia. But often we spend so little time actually asking questions or thinking about the types of questions we ask. They normally just happen as a part of speech, as opposed to being a vital tool in our toolbox to bring about change. Questioning can be scary and at times we might be reluctant to ask them. We might look stupid. We might upset someone. We might be stepping on someone’s toes. It might make our current job irrelevant. But questions are vital to growth, to continuous improvement and to our work as librarians. Asking and investing in productive questions can lead to brand new solutions or billion dollar industries. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup asserts

“In the old economy, it was all about having the answers. But in today’s dynamic, lean economy, it’s more about asking the right questions.”

How then can we get past the fear that can come with questioning and ask really good, productive questions? It turns out that there are techniques that you can use to better craft and understand the types of questions you are asking. I recently lead our teaching librarian team in an exercise designed not only to help us become better teachers but also to make us better professionals. It’s called the Question Formulation Technique from the Right Question Institute and it ended up being a really fun and valuable exercise. It gave us a new method for producing, improving and prioritizing questions.

The basic structure is to come up with as many questions as possible around a specific question focus (we used increasing use of library resources & services for our focus) without judging or trying to answer them. We came up with over 50 questions. The next step involved coding them as open or closed questions. Then, participants were asked to choose the three most important questions that they wanted to explore further and explain why they chose these ones. The process allowed us to learn a lot about questioning as well as come up with really interesting and actionable questions:

  • Is this an issue? (Is this a fool’s errand? Do we need to spend time on this?)
  •  How can we show users the value of our resources? (What can we do with what we have?)
  •  What if our product were different? (Imagine your world differently)

Interestingly the final questions we came up with closely resembled Warren Berger’s Why/What If/How sequence of questioning for effectively thinking through and solving a problem.

Through the process we came to several insights about questioning:

  • It’s hard not to judge questions – questions are powerful in that they evoke a response and demand action of us. We often try to answer or squelch questions much to early.
  • Questions have purposes and motivations behind them-  The way you ask and the type of question you use can help or hinder your goals. Example: When you want discussion a closed question is not going to foster it.
  • We need time and the freedom to question – Asking people to come up with the top three questions on a topic would not have been as successful. Having a process and the space for questioning made our final questions that much better.

To invent the future of libraries we need to question effectively and be brave enough to ask the big and important questions. How do you see purposeful questioning being valuable, either in the classroom or in your work?

EDIT: The original post called the technique from the RQI the “Question Facilitation Technique.” The post has been updated to the correct term “Question Formulation Technique.”

Andy Burkhardt

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