Teaching By Questioning Part 1: Aims and Questions

With the world’s exploding knowledge base in every field, no one can possibly learn everything they need in school. The higher education establishment is well aware of this reality, with the commonly cited purpose of many majors to be “teaching students how to think.” I think “knowing how to think” is more accurately phrased “knowing which questions to ask.”

How do we teach students which questions to ask? I suggest that the most effective way is by asking open-ended questions. In order to answer such questions, students must develop their answer without the crutch of specific knowledge and an obvious path. In doing so, a natural impulse is to wonder whether the current answer is best and whether something has been overlooked. When students practice answering, they will develop more self-directed questions which help them to learn what to ask and how to think.

I will soon find a way to test this assumption, but for now, I will use it. So, how can the question-based method of instruction be implemented?

In an example of class which aims to instill critical and conscious analysis of interdisciplinary project organization, what sort of questions could be used to induce this sort of learning? Let’s first outline the purpose of this class…

Aims: Interdisciplinary Project Organization class
Help students to…

  1. Consider and plan for the division of work in an interdisciplinary project.
  2. Better predict the skills necessary to fulfill any given role.
  3. Better estimate time and resource requirements for specific tasks.
  4. Convey their own skill set to a group
  5. Match all tasks to people with compatible capabilities, while taking into account moderate short-term growth potential.
  6. Ensure that students do not fall into the domain trap.
  7. Encourage students to analyze deeper and remember the process when dividing tasks on their own projects.

Guiding Questions for the aims

  1. What elements make for an effective solution? What steps are necessary for each? Have you accounted for requirements on the group’s time and capabilities? On the time and capabilities of others? What budgets might be necessary? Who can manage the financial and time budgets?
  2. Think of the training that might be required for each job; what are the parts of the training? In the professional’s tasks, what will be done better as a result of each part of training? What does that training not cover? What habits and skills are necessary for group work in general, rather than to a specific role?
  3. What is a general order for the tasks to be completed? What tasks must be started after completion of others? What potential sources of delay (such as waiting on a part to arrive or someone to reply to an email) are present for each task? Which tasks, delays aside, can be completed quickly, and which will take longer? For what tasks (such as research and innovation) is the path to a solution not known at the start?
  4. What project-relevant areas do you know well? What can be covered by your skill set? In which areas could you assist but not lead? What skills could you learn quickly enough to take the lead on a gap area? Who do you know that could help the group on a specific subject?
  5. What parts of the solution will each group member contribute? What parts are can no one in the group do well? What steps (skill development, outside advisement, outsourcing, etc) can remedy that gap? Where does your group skill set overlap? Has the initial division of tasks left anyone with too much work? Can another group member quickly learn the skills necessary to complete that task?
  6. What assumptions are implicit in your current task division? Are people able to do tasks for which they have not been specifically trained? Which areas in your analysis might someone with no formal training be able to do an effective job?
  7. Finally and most importantly, what have we missed? In a topic that matters to you, what sort of work division might be most effective?

In part 2 (coming soon), I’ll attempt to develop a class curriculum which weaves these elements into a coherent structure, including in-class activities, discussion topics, and assignments. As always, all of your feedback is welcome!

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