Monday, September 27, 2010

Questioning Questions

Questions are an integral part of my life both personal and professionally. Speaking on a personal level, the ability to inquire, to ponder, to cogitate has been the primary vehicle for growth and transformation throughout my life. I am not fond of asking “why?” For me intrigue lies in asking “what if?”

As a teacher, questions consume a good bit of my working hours – this may be in the form of students seeking answers to their burning questions or it may be me using questions to guide my students in making a discovery about a piece of music that we are analyzing in class. Then there are those dreaded test questions. I work very hard as a teacher not to ask test questions that require my students simply to regurgitate factual material. Let’s face it, in the digital age, facts rest literally at our fingertips 24/7. We just need to know how to access the pieces of information that we need. As an educator, my role is to model for students how to use these facts, how to learn, and how to think about and articulate intelligently what they have learned. As all of my students have seen, these skills are not always honed in the subject area of music theory or even music. I will embrace any opportunity to stretch the minds of those in my classes. Often this occurs on my infamous “question #10.”

“Question 10” on all of my tests is one of “those” questions - a question with no right or wrong answer, a question that demands that the students think, a questions that forces them to reveal something of themselves, a question that requires that they write a well-formed essay. I ultimately care much less about what they say than I do how they say it.

Last week was test week in all of my classes. “Question 10” on one class’s test was, “Often the question is much more important than the answer. What one question would you like to ask and why?” The class who was given this question is a first semester class; so unless an “upper classman” warned them about my fondness for these seemingly arbitrary questions, they came to class with only information like how many keys are on a piano and the half step – whole step pattern of a harmonic minor scale on their minds. I like to catch them off guard. I know that I have succeeded in so doing when I hear from the back of the class, “I hate questions like this.” I consider such statements as affirmation that my work here is done – at least for now.

As I was grading these tests this afternoon, I received the following email from a former student, a composer who is hoping to perform one of his own compositions on his voice recital. He is speaking here of a conversation with his voice teacher.

[She} asked me on Tuesday to describe the piece to her (when I only had those few measures completed) and I have to tell you I have to thank you for all those damned essay questions. Those exams (that I really whined about) really did prepare me.

I smiled. It is all worthwhile if you profoundly touch the mind of at least one.

Ironically, questions are also this week’s theme in a group that I belong to that right now is studying spiritual journaling. We are asked to consider:

What were your favorite questions when you were a child?
What would I be willing to give up to save the world?
What is the balance between taking action and following guidance?
What do I assume?
If you had your life to live over, what would you do differently? Anything?

I should probably be responding to some of these questions rather than writing a blog post questioning questions. But why?