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The Question Hierarchy

Posted on May 18, 2016 at 9:15 PM Comments comments (258)

There are good questions and there are better questions (I'll leave out the superlative for the moment).  How do you assign a value to the quality of a question?  I suppose it depends on what you want to get out of a question.  Good, thoughtful questions can certainly lead us to a correct solution, albeit perhaps not in the most efficient manner:  I could certainly fly out of Dulles Internation Airport, arrive in Berlin, then take a flight back to JFK in order to get to New York City.  Would that be the most efficient path?  Certainly not.  The most efficient may be the Acela's 3-hr, 45-min direct from DC to NYC.  Or it could be a direct flight out of Reagan.  The point is, that while there are many, many possible paths to a solution, there are only a select few that could possibly be classified as efficient.  And by definition, there is only one most efficient path.  Better questions can lead you to a solution more expediently than, say, not-so-good questions.  Does that mean that the not-so-good question was bad?  Probably not.

Certainly questions fall into some sort of hierarchy.  We ask ourselves questions constantly, but are we asking the right questions.  For example, when supporting students studying trigonometry, much trouble is encountered because of the well-known-to-teachers-and-tutors line "I just don't know where to start." Sometimes we get the question "What do I do?" when studying trig proofs.

I discovered during one of my sessions a new (to me) defintion of experience.  A student inquired to me with something along the lines of "What do I do here?" - a standard question.  Anyone who knows me will agree that I very rarely respond in a satisfactory way (from the student's perspective, at least).  Instead of simply answering the question, I make the student "suffer" a little.  I would like the student to come to terms with the realization that I will not be there during the test, and that eventually he/she will have to solve problems that have never been solved before.  Thus, the student himself will play the role of both the inquirer and the "answerer."  

I normally come back at the student with something along the lines of "Well, what did you try?"

That got me thinking though.  Maybe instead of asking ourselves the question "What do I do?", ask "What can I do?" and then select among those choices.  What happens if you choose the wrong one?  Great!  You've just learned something that doesn't work in this situation.  Next time, maybe you'll remember that and eliminate that choice right away.  That is how I define experience.  As a scientist, I'm always seeking pure definitions and processes.  So, I define experience as "adding weight to our choices" - that's it.  The more we practice, the more we encounter, and the more we learn what does and doesn't work.