Sunday, March 15, 2015

The 25th Friday: Beautiful Questions

“...Here again, as I talked to educators, I found a genuine interest in the subject--many teachers acknowledge it’s critically important that students be able to formulate and ask good questions. Some realize that this skill is apt to be even more important in the future, as complexity increases and change accelerates. Yet, for some reason, questioning isn't taught in most schools--nor is it rewarded (only memorized answers are).” 
Warren Berger

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Slavens School, an amazing school near Denver that reminded me quite a bit of the schools I currently serve in Deerfield, Illinois. At Slavens, we observed 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students learning in their school’s STEM lab built by partnering with Creative Learning Systems (CLS). In our district, we have CLS STEM Labs and Communication Media Arts Labs in both of our middle schools; each time I visit our middle school labs, I am struck by the extent to which our kids are creating, collaborating, communicating, and thinking critically. In Denver, it was quite impressive to see students in grades 3-5 equally engaged, inspired, and empowered by the learning experiences they were collaborating on with their classmates and teacher. However, my purpose in writing this week’s blog post is not to share my reflections on the labs we visited (If you wish to learn more about this visit, including images, please take a look at a post by Kipling School principal Anthony McConnell at The Principal's Blog summarizing the school visits we enjoyed), but a book that caught my eye that was on the STEM teacher’s desk at Slavens School. I asked this teacher if I could look through the book; upon doing so, I immediately bought the Kindle version myself. Although I have only just begun reading the book,  A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas,  I am already hooked and am reminded that its premise is worthy of our consideration as educators.

Berger’s book is organized around questions: he includes forty-four questions within the five chapters that comprise the book and concludes with a “Question Index” at the back of the book. He takes the title of his book from an 
e. e. cummings poem (“Always the beautiful answer/Who asks a more beautiful question.”) and defines “a beautiful question” for the purposes of his book as follows:

“A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something--and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

He emphasizes that his focus is not grand, philosophical questions, but questions that can be acted upon, leading to tangible results and change. It has started me thinking (reminded me, actually, as this topic is one I have thought about often, as have so many of you, I suspect) that questioning in the classroom--both the questions we pose to our students as well as the questions we encourage them to pose to us, their classmates, and the world at large in return--is hugely important and something we should dedicate time to planning with intention. Here are just a few questions that Berger, himself, poses in his text:

  • Why are we doing this particular thing in this particular way?
  • Why does a 4-year-old girl begin to question less at age 5 or 6? And what are the ramifications of that, for her and the world around her/
  • How can we develop and improve this ability to question?
  • What if I come at my work or art in a whole different way?
  • Why don't they come up with a better snow shovel?
  • How did “master questioners” come to be that way?
  • Can a school be built on questions?

To explore answers to these and other questions, I encourage you to pick up this neat book. Meanwhile, I encourage us all to ponder a question about questions: What are some “beautiful questions” we should pose that might serve as catalysts for continued growth in our schools? Would these qualify as such:

  • Does what we teach matter to our students?
  • How can we make it matter more?
  • Why do we assign homework?
  • What if we created opportunities for our kids to educate, entertain, inspire, or connect with people from all over the globe who might be sincerely influenced by the work they're doing? 

What "beautiful" questions would you add to this list? What are some ambitious, yet actionable questions we can pose and ponder that might serve as catalysts for positive change in our schools? Thank you for considering the questions we pose to our students and the extent to which we encourage thoughtful questioning in return; asking and soliciting “beautiful questions” is another way we Teach with Passion in our classrooms and schools!


  1. Jeff, your posts always make me think, which is why I am so interested in reading them! This week, I am left pondering my own practices as an " Asker of Questions" both with students and with staff. Do I model "beautiful questions" in such a way that their importance comes through? I'm not sure that I do- which gives me pause, as well as something to work on strengthening. Thank you for asking YOUR questions!

    1. Leah,
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! In our roles, it is so important to lead with questions, not answers. LWP,

  2. Jeff, so this idea of asking beautiful questions has me thinking. Not only do we need to lead with better questions for our students (and in turn, model for them how to ask better questions of themselves. We need to continue to push ourselves with "more beautiful questions" of ourselves and our schools. The work you do and share from your school always impressed me. But the idea that you continue to push your thinking...with action such as school visits, and "wrestling" with your reflective process through active and regular professional reading and writing...this demonstrates what great leaders do: they never stop pushing themselves and others to improve and to pursue being great. Thanks for another thoughtful share and a great book recommendation!


    1. Dennis,
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. You always help me grow and push me to be better tomorrow than I am today. Thanks for leading with passion!