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!)

Question posing


A problem:

Schools don't teach how to ask good questions. Which is a shame, because good questions are magic.

They're hard to ask, though! To ask a good question, you have to understand what you know and what you don't know, and stand on the very edge. A good question transforms a cloud of unknowing into a tool. A good question directs your emotions toward finding an answer.

Posing a good question isn't easy. It's hard to ask big questions, hard to ask specific small questions, hard to ask solvable questions.

In fact, questions of any sort only come into schooling in a limited way. Students ask questions in school, of course, but often just at the periphery — when they really don't understand what the teacher just said, and feel bold enough to admit it. But great learning is powered by questions.

Our basic plan:

Every day, students collect their observations, questions, and stray hunches into a special idea-journal they have (for now, dubbed a "commonplace book").

Once a week, the class meets to share the questions they'd most like to pursue. In that meeting, students evaluate their questions — are they open-ended, or close-ended (for example, could they be answered with a single word?)? Are they factual, interpretative, or evaluative?

In the meeting, the class chooses a handful of questions that they'd most like to pursue.

(For how, specifically, the class might pursue the questions, look forward to the next post! It'll be epic.)

Our goals:

Our hope is for students to get good at recognizing what they don't know.

We hope that recognizing that they swim in mystery might make them much more curious about everything.

We hope that wielding the ability to control questions will give students control over their learning.

We hope that giving students a regular chance to share their questions (and explain their findings) might cultivate a community of passionate learners — something like that which is depicted in Raphael's famous School of Athens.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Walking into our classroom, you might notice students furiously scribbling notes in their commonplace books whenever a question pops into their head — as they study a ficus tree's roots, say, or watch the opening to Casablanca.

Some specific questions:

  • I'm imagining this question-meeting as being once a week — but I wonder if there's a value in doing something once a month, as well. Maybe we could set a theme for the month, or set some broader questions.
  • Initally, I imagine that the teacher will lead the question-meeting, but eventually it'd be great to have students try taking it over.
  • When would be the best day to have our question-meeting — the first day of the week (Monday), or the last day of the week (Thursday)? The easy answer is Monday, but I wonder if letting the questions mull for a weekend might be cool. (Also, students could research the question on Friday, our "school day off".)