Questions and Answers: The Substance of Knowledge and Relationships

By Petress, Ken | College Student Journal, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Questions and Answers: The Substance of Knowledge and Relationships


Petress, Ken, College Student Journal


The ability to ask quality questions and to respond adequately and usefully are skills few are formally taught. These skills are learned haphazardly by some and by trial and error by others. Asking questions and responding to questions are vital to learning, relating with others, and in professional/vocational endeavors. This article advocates that these skills be formally included in the curricula of all schools.

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The abilities to ask quality questions and produce meaningful and utilitarian answers form the initial bases of much of what we know and supplies a valuable social and intellectual glue to our interpersonal relationships. Questioning and answering are learned skills that parents, teachers, mentors, and peers need to stress more so as to produce articulate, productive, and socially competent family members, workplace members, students, and citizens. If we cannot or will not ask useful questions, how can we hope for superior answers? If we do too little to invite productive answers, how can we hope to be an informed individual or group? If we knowingly become uninformed citizens, workmates, students, or relational partners, our futures are guaranteed to be bleak.

There exist several different types of quality questions; these include questions of "specification, amplification, kind/category, verification/validation, degree, magnitude, motive, detail, and questions designed to probe, challenge, and motivate." (1) Questions need to be purposeful for them to be treated seriously and for the asker to secure and maintain credibility and legitimacy. Philosophers Paul and Elder suggest criteria for quality questions; questions need to be: "clear, direct, relevant, concrete, as unbiased as possible, specific, asked in a civil tone, and asked in a way that makes the questioner's motives/needs clear to be maximally effective and to ensure expected responses to result." (2) Quality questioning and answering involve critical thinking; critical thinking has been defined as "involving the ability to explore problem, question, or situation; integrate all the available information about it; arrive at a solution or hypothesis; and justify one's position." (3)

Questioning and responding to others' probes occur in a social setting; several characteristics of this environment are critical to successful exchanges. First, questioners need to strive to make their inquiries genuine searches for better understandings of the content, motive, and/or effects of what has been said, done, or proposed. Second, those questioned must be willing to respond fully, openly, honestly, and directly. Third, questioners need to be aware that beyond the content of their inquiries, their rate, tone, posture, vocabulary, gestures, and facial expressions need to be congruent with their words. Incongruent messages are typically seen as deceptive and/or of questionable motive. Fourth, respondents to questions ought to become personally involved in the questioner's cause with explanations where useful and paraphrasing questions when any doubts exist as to its clarity. Fifth, questioners need to be accepting if and when they are told that some or all of what is being asked is not known or too sensitive to share.

Asking questions and producing quality responses needs to be taught at home and in school (at all levels). Such does not seem to be the case at present. In interviews with over 100 students, 30 colleagues, and 20 neighbors, I have discovered none admitting to specifically teaching their children, students, or neighbors the value of quality questions and answers, how to form useful probes and responses, or the benefits of doing so. (4) Without some level of methodical and repetitive instruction, these skills are not likely to manifest themselves in refined form. …

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