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Asking Questions

Ask interesting, thought-provoking questions and you know what happens? People try to answer them! Whether they respond orally, or simply contemplate in reflective silence, visitors will actively participate when asked appropriate questions.

No matter whether you teach with art, history, or science collections, you can encourage active thinking and participatory learning by asking questions. Let the objects or specimens in your collection serve as the focus of your tours, but employ questions as catalysts, provoking investigation and reflection by requesting participants to consider and do something.

Not all questions will engage reflective thinking and active learning, and however In fact, some can do quite the opposite. Closed-ended questions, which test a person’s recall of factual information or challenge their perceptual abilities, are counter productive. These questions, while useful when testing material previously learned in a classroom situation, may impede participation by visitors who are examining an unfamiliar object or site.

Closed-ended questions test a person’s recall of specific information. Questions such as “Do you know which year the settlers first arrived at Jamestown?” or “How many trees do you see in this landscape?” request specific and correct responses. Such questions restrict participation to those who know the answers, and lead to judgments of accuracy rather than to involvement and discussion.

Open-ended questions, on the other hand, are questions that do not have presupposed or predetermined answers. They embrace a wide variety of responses, and call upon our individual perceptions, thoughts, and creativity to formulate a range of possibilities. They invite everyone to offer their ideas and join in the discussion.

For instance, the question “What is the distance in miles between Jacksonville, Florida, and Los Angeles, California, if driving on Interstate 10?” is closed-ended. It is not subject to interpretation. There is a specific, correct answer. However, the question “How many different ways might you measure the distance between Jacksonville, Florida, and Los Angeles, California?” is open-ended. This question has many possible responses, including:

  • by miles or kilometers;
  • by the time it takes to drive at different speeds;
  • by the calories it burns to walk;
  • by the time it takes to fly on different types of aircraft;
  • by fuel consumption using different modes of transportation;
  • by the geo-political units (states or counties) you would pass through;
  • by time zones;
  • by how far away the cities “feel” when a loved one is in the other location; and so on.

How do open-ended questions work?

Just as there are two types of questions — closed-ended and open-ended — there are two types of thinking — convergent and divergent. Closed-ended questions request convergent thinking, challenging the mind to narrow its focus to a specific answer, or specific set of correct answers. Open-ended questions call for the production of ideas, thoughts, and imaginings. They invite the mind to think divergently, acting as a pry to open thinking up in order to generate new, different, or more possibilities. Open-ended questions call for the “creation” of possibilities. Creating possibilities within a particular discipline is what artists do when they make choices about how to convey ideas, what historians do when trying to reconstruct the past, and what scientists do when beginning to formulate hypotheses. In other words, open-ended questions prompt the many, varied, unique, and detailed ways of thinking one needs to produce in order to fully understand and appreciate art, history, or science.

Questions or tasks designed to provoke a greater quantity of responses often incorporate phrases like, “How many . . . can you think of?” or “Develop a list of as many…as you possibly can.” Such interrogatives request fluent thinking.

Questions or tasks that serve to provoke a greater variety of responses often begin with phrases such as, “How else might you consider …?” or “What other kind of answer can you think of…?” These interrogatives invite flexible thinking. Questions or tasks that provoke highly personalized responses should specifically request this form of thinking from participants. Phrases such as, “What would you do . . .?” or “Come up with your very own … .” can prompt original thinking by challenging participants to develop individualized ideas.

Questions or tasks that provoke highly detailed responses might begin with such phrases as “Tell us more about … .” or “What else do you know about … ?” Such interrogatives extract detailed or additional information from participants through elaborative thinking.

What kinds of responses are offered to open-ended questions?

“Ask an open-ended question, get a multitude of responses.” Because they are designed to encourage the production of options more than solutions, open-ended questions will elicit responses ranging from the predictable to the hardly credible. Some will seem clever; others may seem “off-the-wall.” Keep in mind, however, that the reason for asking these questions is to have visitors spend time examining your collection and reflecting upon its significance, and NOT to have them retrieve correct answers to questions about things they are not well acquainted with.

Remember that the responses you receive will reflect differences in individual points-of-view. Each participant will see, think about, and decide different things when inspecting museum objects because each person will selectively focus and respond in their own, personalized way.

How should a docent react to the range of responses received?

Active thinking can be encouraged or discouraged simply by the manner in which the group leader reacts. Participation and the communication of ideas are based on trust — trust that one’s thoughts will be valued and that one’s attempts will be positively recognized. If anyone has an inkling that his or her thoughts are not respected, that person may quit participating, withdraw, and even shut down thought altogether.

Your responsibility when leading tours and activities is to facilitate and encourage reflection and active participation, NOT to sit in judgment. Be open to new, wild, humorous, or idiosyncratic thoughts. If you, or others in the group, are puzzled by a response, request elaboration. Without seeming to challenge the respondent, ask for more information or to understand how the person decided upon a particular idea. Then, accept the reasoning offered and move on. Sometimes, participants will offer answers that they, themselves, will choose to re-evaluate after more ideas are. put forth or with additional time for reflection. That’s fine. After all, we learn by trial and error.

As the facilitator, you should encourage idea production and not focus on idea evaluation. The purpose of your questions is to slow visitors down, encourage their investigation, and to provoke their thoughtful consideration. Remember that you are teaching people how to think about art, history, or science objects or specimens. That responsibility is challenging enough without taking on the further burden of testing their knowledge base.

Though it is difficult, avoid excessive use of positive feedback to reward or encourage responses that you like. Visitors will quickly learn the difference between being told. “good answer” and being told “okay.” The lack of a positive reaction is the equivalent of a negative reaction to most people. Remain consistent in both the type and the tone of your reactions.

Remember that everyone seeks validation from a group leader. Try to avoid having participants work for your approval, rather than for the internal satisfaction of thinking and investigating your intriguing collection. Offer such non-judgmental statements as “thank you” when acknowledging responses from participants.

And, finally, remember to be patient. Do not expect responses to your open-ended questions immediately after asking them. Give participants time to think, reflect, and reconsider something they may never have seen before, or thought about in that particular way.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Asking Questions,” The Docent Educator 9.2 (Winter 1999-2000): 2-3.

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