Sometimes in a seminar, lecture or discussion, if we don’t know the topic we feel like we can’t really participate or engage. We might know nothing about postmodern accounts of learning, for example, or the learning styles of accounting students, so we feel like we can’t say anything useful, nor ask any questions. However, there are many ways to engage intelligently with a topic, even if it is unfamiliar. There are techniques for asking intelligent questions that do not require a deep understanding of the topic.
Some questions are about substantive aspects of a topic and can only be asked if you have some understanding of the topic. For example, how is Lyotard’s perspective related to Smetsky’s account of learning without a learner? But other questions simply ask for further thinking about a topic, whatever the substantive topic might be:
- What do you mean by x?
- Can you give me an example of x?
- Can you say more about x?
- Why do you think x?
- What would be your recommendations about x?
I sometimes call these thought-encouraging questions because they encourage further thinking about any topic: You simply replace the x with something that has been said. For similar reasons they are also called Socratic questions or critical thinking questions.
Thought-encouraging questions are useful for critical analysis or exploration of any topic. In fact, these are the questions I ask myself to assist me to dig deeper into a topic I don’t fully understand – they force me to reflect and clarify my ideas.
Asking a good thought-encouraging questions is simply an expression of puzzlement about what someone is saying; you ask the question that flows from your puzzlement:
- If I wonder about what they mean, then I might ask: “what do you mean by x?” OR “can you give an example of x?”
- If I’m puzzled by why they think this is true, or I wonder what their justification is then I might ask: “why do you think x?” OR “what evidence is there to support x?
Questions like these are useful tools for engaging in any seminar, lecture or discussion. However, you might also be reluctant to ask questions if you are concerned that only stupid or ignorant people ask questions. However, this is not only a limiting concern, but it is inaccurate. Only the intellectually sharp can ask probing question, and asking these questions is the sign of reflective engagement, not stupidity. I frequently ask these questions, especially when I don’t know much about the topic under discussion. I listen carefully to the speaker, and if I wonder what they meant, or how their idea would translate into practice, or what their reasons are, my first reaction is simply to ask them to explain further, and I express this as a thought-encouraging question. I think that they have not explained themselves, not that I must be stupid if I don’t know.