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What am I hoping to accomplish by asking a question?

I sometimes begin my “Minds in Motion” workshop about developing interaction skills by asking this question. If you will, take a moment or two to answer it yourself before you read any further. I’ll wait. (la, la, la … la, la, la)

Sometimes the question makes audiences a little uncomfortable. Often, I can tell that some of them are becoming agitated. Usually, however, I get several answers. Maybe you thought of some of these, too.

“You want us to focus.”

“You want us to know that you expect us to participate.”

“You want us to think about questions.”

In addition to these responses, and any others you may have thought of, I wanted us to examine the importance of the way in which a question is phrased. So, I’m going to ask my question in another way. Let’s see what happens.

How many different reasons can you think of for asking a question?

I’ll wait while you answer. (la, la, la … la, la, la)

You may have thought of some additional reasons, such as these that audiences have given me from time to time.

“Questions help you find out what your visitors already know about the subject.”

“Questions help you find out which members of your group are most likely to participate.”

I still don’t have the question quite the way I want it. Let’s examine the difference when I re-phrase it.

How many different reasons can we list for asking a question?

My real question, now, is “How are these three questions different?” See if you notice differences that make the last version the best of the three (and it still has some problems!) I’ll “la, la, la” again while you investigate.

You may have noticed that the first question really asked you to guess what was going on in my mind. That’s probably why the question makes some audience members (and maybe you) uncomfortable or even angry. It isn’t fair to make our visitors guess, but it’s easy to phrase a question in such a way that they think there’s a right answer and they don’t know what it is. In that case, an otherwise open-ended question becomes a trick question, and you’ve put your audience on the defensive.

The second and third versions of my question appear to ask the same thing, but I’ll bet you noticed that in the third version “we” are participating together and “we” are going to list (a concrete action) rather than merely think of reasons. Of course, you also probably noticed that the second and third versions are still poorly stated. Instead of asking my audience for a list, I’m actually asking them for a number. “How many different reasons ….”

Question content is, of course, very important. Equally important, however, is the way questions are phrased. Let’s try creating a really good question, well-stated and designed to help your visitor discover something great about your collection or site. Start with some information you want your visitors to know.

State it as a fact. Now write two questions that this statement might evoke in your audience. The first should be one that would come immediately to mind upon hearing the statement. The second, and much harder to develop, is a question that would help your audience discover the information in your statement without your having to state it.

For example, pretend for a moment that I am a docent in the historic Heyward-Washington House in Charleston, South Carolina. Suppose, too, that I want my visitors to know that one of the reasons the house is so famous is the fact that George Washington once stayed here. IfI simply state the fact, “This house is famous because George Washington slept here,” I run the risk of putting my audience to sleep as well! What sort of question might that statement evoke in my audience?

“How does she know that?”

“So what?”

“He probably slept in lots of places. Who else slept here?” “So, who the heck was Heyward?”

As you may have noticed, the questions running through everyone’s minds don’t add much to my visitors’ enjoyment of or interest in this historic site. Let’s see about that second question. How can I phrase a question that will help visitors discover this little tidbit themselves?

I might ask the group if they’ve ever had the experience I had when I moved to a small town in Tennessee.

New friends didn’t ask my address, they asked whose house I bought. This seems to be an “old southern custom”. With that in mind, how do you suppose this house got its name?

In addition to letting visitors discover an important fact about this site, a question such as this is “transferable.” By that, I mean, they can use this information to make generalizations about other sites’ names.

Whenever possible, your questions should empower your audience. They should be useful not only at your site, but in other situations. What sorts of questions do that? Questions that teach visitors to categorize and classifY artifacts and specimens can go with them from a historic site to an aquarium to a botanical garden and allow them to learn about each location without help. Questions that show visitors how to compare and contrast data and ideas will work for them whether they are at a nature center or in an art gallery. Questions that demonstrate analysis of a document in a history museum can empower them to analyze an animal’s habitat in a modern zoo. Questions that help them generalize from their observations will open up all sorts of possibilities in all sorts of museums.

Now, it’s time to practice. Go into your institution. Select an artifact, a collection, or an exhibit that you tour frequently. Write some of the questions you typically ask a touring group. Are you asking your visitors to guess what’s on your mind? Are you asking them to “think” or to “do”? Are you asking them a question that can be answered “yes” or “no”? Are your asking them questions that empower them? Can you questions be improved? Start thinking and writing!

Littleton, Jackie. “What Was That Question?” The Docent Educator 12.1 (Autumn 2002): 6-7.

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