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Helping Visitors Ask Better Questions

As part of the weekly comedy television show Whose Line is it Anyway? comedians are given a variety of improvisational challenges designed to entertain. In one game, the comedians must carry on a conversation using only questions. While at first the “Question Game” sounds relatively easy, after five or six exchanges even these experienced performers struggle to keep going, finding it difficult to come up with yet another question.

A thirty- minute comedy television program may seem worlds away from the education that takes place at your institution, yet it can offer docents a few practical strategies. The “Question Game” gets us thinking about questions for their own sake — not questions in search of answers. Asking good questions is becoming an increasingly valuable skill. I believe that docents can do a great service for visitors if, in addition to asking their groups questions, docents encourage visitors to strengthen their own questioning skills.

What strategies can you develop to assist your visitors in asking better questions? You can use some of the same ideas put forth in the television game, namely, encouraging your students to: (1) rise to the challenge, (2) improvise, and (3) stretch for “yet another” question.

The first strategy, rising to the challenge, suggests that it can be difficulty to engage in extended questioning. This is part of why the “Questioning Game” on Whose Line is so funny. Focusing on questioning rather than answering takes us outside of our normal realm. Watching performers on stage forced to converse in this way is unexpected, and in turn, humorous. It is as if listeners are hanging on the edge, waiting for what years of experience have taught them to expect— an answer.

Today’s society is very answer-oriented. There is great attention put on uncovering the right answer, without giving much importance to the question itself Eric Booth, in his book The Everyday Work of Art addresses this habit, saying, “The value of questioning is grossly overlooked in the high-demand quick-fix nature of our lives and our nation. We are answer-oriented everywhere, having been trained to this through schooling that is almost entirely right-answer driven.” He goes on to point out that the root of the word question is quest. A quest is a search and a challenge, but not without rewards.

So, how can you set the stage for the participants on your tour to ask questions? One suggestion is beginning your tour by letting the group know that you value what each individual is bringing to the experience. Make it clear up front that you will not be lecturing and that instead you hope to engage in dialogue about the things that are of interest to them. As a group you will share ideas, stories, and questions.

Dr. David Carr, Professor of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has often pointed out the value of attending to thoughtful questions. In his keynote presentation at the 1996 Wisconsin Docent Symposium, he suggested, “You may want to say explicitly [to your visitors] that there are no keys or secrets here and that the purpose of what you do here is not to find answers but to ask questions. You might say, ‘Not everyone sees the same things in this object. How many different questions come to mind when you look at it? No one has any better answers than anyone else, but some questions help us to go farther than others.”‘

The second lesson taught by the “Questioning Game” is the value of developing improvisational skills. The dictionary defines improvise as the ability “to fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand.” This seems a fairly accurate description of what a docent does when creating an atmosphere of learning. A good docent is a facilitator who is able to take the resources readily available, (e.g., the objects on view, the students’ minds, the docent’s experience) and weave or fabricate a meaningful experience. You can teach your students to do the same. By encouraging them to use their own minds as one of their resources, you will enhance the quality of their learning.

Jerome Bruner, author of several books on education, wrote, “Acquired knowledge is most to a learner, moreover, when it is ‘discovered’ through the learner’s own cognitive efforts, for it is then related to and used in reference to what one has known before.” If you challenge students to improvise by using their own minds, their peers’ ideas, and the objects you are exploring, you will help them construct their own meaning.

How can improvising help you on a tour? Well, lets say your initial plan for a tour was to focus on a selected work or object in a gallery, but upon entering the area you notice that the visitors on your tour are intrigued by something else and it is generating conversation. You could try to re-direct their attention to the piece you had pre-selected, or you could improvise. With the object of interest, and conversation that has already begun, you can fabricate a quality learning experience. Encourage visitors to direct their energy into designing questions about the object that stirred their interest. What do they want to know about it? See if they can vocalize their interest in the form of questions. In this way you help them explore both the object and what they themselves are thinking about it.

The third thing we can learn from the comedians is the value of stretching for “yet another question.” On Whose Line, the farther the actors get into the “Questioning Game,” the funnier the lines become. It is by stretching the limits of questioning that the most interesting scenarios and connections are made. The more you move beyond the surface level, and peel back the layers, the more intriguing and meaningful the dialogue. Yet is can be difficult enough to motivate students to ask questions. Moving them beyond their initial inquiries may take extra effort and creativity on your part.

To assist you in this approach, here is an activity you can try at any institution with any object. It doesn’t matter if the object is a rare tree, a historic rocking chair, a zebra, a Roman vase, or an abstract painting. Give each visitor a sheet of paper and pencil. Have them individually list five to ten questions about the object you are discussing. Almost certainly they will write down their first and second question easily. However, as visitors get farther in their list they may pause more before writing. They will have to take a closer and longer look at the object. Some may insist that they can only come up with three or four questions. But encourage them. Challenge them. When finished, ask everybody to share the last question on their list. You will accomplish a few things with this activity. First, you will have given each person time alone to reflect on his/her unique questions about the object rather than putting everyone on the spot up front. Secondly, you will be emphasizing the value of extended viewing and thinking. Finally, the activity will result in more interesting and varied questions to initiate your group discussion, demonstrating that pushing for the more involved questions was rewarding.

For younger students who might not be capable of much writing, you could make a game out of this “yet another question” approach. First, focus the students’ interest on an object. Then invite them to see how many questions they can come up with. Stress that the point of the game is not to have you, as the docent, answering the questions, but rather it is to see how many questions the group can come up with. Ask the students to raise their hands whenever they have a question ready, having them ask just one question at a time. Young students will find it particularly humorous and engaging if, as the questioning goes on, you pretend to look a bit fatigued trying to keep up with all of their questions. Their initial reward is the fun of “wearing you out.” The extended reward is the discussion you can have following the game, based on the questions they created.

Now that we’ve explored rising to the challenge, improvising, and stretching tor more questions, let’s go further with the idea of having visitors ask questions. It is important to realize that not all questions are created equal. Eric Booth explores this, saying, “Good questions themselves are creative accomplishments. Of course, there is more to a good question than just its invitation to produce a lot of right answers.” Consider the example he gives related to questioning students about trees. He compares the questions “What are some kinds of trees?” to “What are various solutions that trees could offer to that empty part of the backyard?” He explains, “Each of the two questions in this paragraph evokes images of trees in the answering process; however, the first invites a recall-and-drop mental game while the second uses images of trees as part of a process you have a personal stake in.”

Educators can be most effective when they model for their students what they are expecting. If you are trying to help your students ask deeper questions, show them what you mean. For example, ask them to decide which of two questions you pose is more effective in generating discussion. For instance, you might ask (1) “What are the colors in this artwork?” and (2) “How does the artist’s choice of colors impact the mood created by this artwork?” Ask them to discuss why one question takes the group further than the other. The first question certainly has value in leading to the more involved question, but comparing the two will help illustrate for the students what you are looking for.

To assist your visitors in designing their own great questions, here is another activity you can try. Break your tour group into small teams of two or three and have them choose an object to discuss. Ask each team to generate as many questions as they can about their chosen object. Challenge the teams to design questions that will promote thinking and dialogue. After giving them some time, bring the larger group together and travel to each object selected by a team. Have the team members share the two or three top questions about their object that they think will get everyone most involved in a discussion.

Putting so much effort into having visitors do more questioning raises the issue of docents providing answers. Sometimes docents feel pressure to provide answers to all questions. Encouraging multiple questions from all participants would seem to create multiple opportunities for a docent to be “wrong.” You may have lots of factual information about your collection that you could use in answering, but a string of factual answers thrown at an audience does not always set the stage for the best educational experience.

There are times on a tour when you should provide information. But, you could not — and should not — be able to answer every question that is posed. First, this would make it seem as if you are the keeper of all information and the group must rely on you to receive it. Secondly, it is a wonderful gift to visitors to model how to handle not knowing the answer to a question, and that there is value in the questions themselves. You may want to let your audience know early in your tour that some questions will not be answered in the museum. In addition, some good questions are never fully answered — but the questions themselves still have value.

I am not suggesting that you design a strategy that avoids all answers, but you may want to consider the manner in which you provide information. When you share facts with visitors, it is helpful if you contribute the information as a member of the group, participating in the discussion rather than leading it. For example, if discussing an artwork you might say something like, “I find it interesting that so many of you have asked questions related to the dark colors in this painting. Through reading, I discovered that this artist had recently experienced the death of a loved one, and he said that the experience influenced his mood and in turn his color scheme.” By sharing in this way, you are demonstrating that you are listening to and honoring their questions, and you now know they are ready to actively receive information. Imagine if you had walked up to that painting and started right in saying, “This artist had recently suffered the death of a loved one and as a result his color scheme is primarily dark …” Students would never have had a chance to ask their own questions, formulate their own opinions, or develop a connection with the painting.

By encouraging better questioning skills, you are helping visitors develop strengths that will enhance their personal and professional lives. Eric Booth stressed “[if] we develop the habit and skill of pursuing personal interests with good inquiry, our possibilities for growth become infinite.” And Renate and Geoffrey Caine, in their book Education on the Edge of Possibility, describe business leaders looking for potential employees “… who are innovative and creative in their thinking, and who can focus on possibilities rather than ‘right’ answers or doing what they are told.” By designing a strategy that gets your visitors asking questions, you’ve helped them think about what they already know, and what they’d like to know more about, rather than just having your group wait for you to give the “right” answers.

Eric Booth echoes the lessons taught by the Whose Line comedians when he says, “I wish I could give you a handy kitbag of reliable questions to try, but there can be no prescribable set of sure-fire questions. The whole game is one giant improvisation; it is unplannable. Also, the questions themselves are far less important that the habit of questioning. Having a tour group ask more thoughtful questions rewards the docent as well as the visitors. After listening to the questions your visitors create, you will almost certainly be able to say to yourself and others, “I’ve seen that object so many times but I never thought about it in quite that way…” That, perhaps, is one of the most enjoyable rewards of being a docent and working with such a variety of people, with such a wide range of questions.

Michael Nelson has been a museum educator for ten years. Previously, she worked at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame and then the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin. She currently resides in Austin, Texas, and is working as an independent museum education advisor, specializing in docent training.

Nelson, Michael. “Helping Visitors Ask Better Questions,” The Docent Educator 9.2 (Winter 1999-2000): 10-13.

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