Teaching writing through questions (and cupcakes!)


Learning to ask useful questions is one of the most important things we can teach. Might I invite us to be skeptical of this claim? It has a certain "hippie-dippie" ring to it that makes even me dubious!

I've written before of our method of teaching question-posing and answer-hunting. We're spending significant time each day on this. Is it really worth it? After a year (or more) of being in a community that cultivates these skills, what might we hope for?


A former student of mine sent me an e-mail yesterday describing his experiences in a year-long seminar I led on happiness a while back. (A fun class! I'll be describing the newest version soon.)

He calls especial attention to how our class affected his writing ability — which is interesting, since I never had the students write more than one sentence a week.

Specifically, I had them write down a single question: what question they'd most enjoy posing to the class. When we got together, we compiled those questions, and simply voted on which ones we'd like to tackle first. (The person with the winning question got, erm, a cupcake.)

What follows is, of course, an anecdote — one student's experience. We shouldn't assume it'll be the norm, and we shouldn't let this distract us from systematic track of how all students experience question-posing and answer-hunting.

But: well, read it for yourself!

(I've taken the liberty of boldfacing certain words and phrases, to ease Internet reading.)

I've been hearing a bit about a new happiness class this fall. I'm starting school at UW in fall (and hopefully lab work), so sadly I don't know if I'll be able to come. But it reminded me of something that I've wanted to tell you for a while! Namely: happiness class taught me how to think and, by extension, how to write. For the longest time I could only write research reports, simple straightforward summaries of information in topical or chronological order. When it came to something more akin to an essay, taking a question or thesis and fleshing it out in my own words, I balked; I was so intimidated I gave up before I tried.

We didn't do any literal writing in happiness class, but we did read and, most importantly, we asked a lot of questions. Maybe I asked more than most because I was motivated by the pursuit of a certain cupcake. But the result was that I spent an hour or more a week wrestling with every word and idea of one book chapter, combing through to find the author's arguments so that I could challenge them or pose my own questions. To be able to defend your question at the meeting I had to flesh out the argument at least a little, and I found it wasn't so hard to talk about my own ideas after all.

Come the end of that year, I had to write a pretty long final essay for a class. Before I might've flinched at the thought, but I was ready. I skimmed an entire book first to get a feeling for the topic, and then I sat down and asked, "what questions can I ask about this?" And it worked! I built up an argument with an interesting question, a supporting sub-question, and a pretty fleshed out outline. It was the easiest essay I had written, and certainly the most fun. 

Now I can't get enough of writing commentary, media or literature analysis, mini-essays, and reflections.  I know I always had some thoughts, but until I had the practice, I didn't know how to talk about them. Furthermore, I didn't know how to conjure insight on-demand. And who can, consistently? But now I have a fighting chance. What's more, the way I see and think about the world has changed. As I've grown even more comfortable with the logic of writing and the structuring of arguments (which is of course at the heart of all thought), I feel like a new world has opened up to me. I can now enjoy, wrestle with, and experience a type of thought that, before, I couldn't.

Thank you, Brandon! I could say many other things about the quality of our discussions or the great books you exposed me to, but learning how to ask questions - learning, essentially, how to think (and thus write) - was the most precious gift.

So, to sum up:

By teaching question-posing, we're teaching thinking. And by teaching thinking, we're teaching writing.

(Thanks to the student in question for giving me permission to post his letter. Which, I'll note, is very well-written!)