The Art of Questions

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This article appeared in NSEAD’s AD Magazine January 2016

The Art of Questions by Paul Carney

When planning and delivering lesson content teachers are continually striving for a balance between ensuring their pupils achieve the intended learning objectives and maintaining their motivation. We can’t place enjoyment above the need to deliver good content, but in we can’t ignore it either, because creativity is dependent on motivation.
Now of course many art teachers build creative opportunities into project learning stages to facilitate personal interpretation and so improve motivation. Whilst this usually reaps considerable rewards in terms of the quality of pupils’ output, it’s still very teacher-dependent. All those long nights planning lessons and making resources, select appropriate images, objects, themes, topics, artists as starting points etc. are often counter-productive to good learning. They usually end up making your students dependent on you. Our well-intended, conscientiously over-planned projects often kill the very thing we are striving for. We dull creativity and teach learning by imitation. Pupil motivation can be lost if the teacher has done all the thinking beforehand. Sometimes all that is left is a series of instructions for students to follow. In their book Questioning in the Primary Phase, Brown and Wragg say the ability to ask intelligent and searching questions and to use questions that stimulate complex reasoning, imagination and speculation are crucial to teachers of all ages and subject groups. Research by Professor Steve Higgins for the Sutton Trust bears out the potential gain of metacognition as being equivalent to eight months academic progress, which is the most effective way of raising attainment and the cheapest.
In her book ‘Principals and Student Achievement: What the Research Says’ Education Researcher and author Kathleen Cotton says that Primary children and less able children learn when lots of lower-cognitive questions are asked that build gradually to higher cognition. In the Secondary sector she recommends you show students how to answer higher cognitive level questions and increase the frequency you ask them in order to attain higher pupil performance.
Virtually every thing you do in your classroom, every skill, every technique, every knowledge finding, idea developing, project making, material exploring thing you do can become part of a question-based model instead of a teacher-led model. If you want to transform your teaching you will need to switch your mindset away from delivering content to facilitating investigation, problem solving and inquiry. You will become someone who stops answering questions and demonstrating learning and starts helping people to find the answers themselves.
Essential questions are questions that evoke curiosity, deep thought, enquiry and reflection. They make us focus on core knowledge and values, and ensure we consider alternative options, provide evidence to support our ideas and provoke discussion. They are the driving force behind any intelligent thinking person; ‘Why am I here? What do I want to do with my life?’ and so are integral to Art and Design, because artists have struggled with similar themes throughout time.
Writing Essential Questions isn’t easy. It requires a lot more thought from the teacher at the planning stage for one thing. Even then, pupils need to be taught how to respond to a question like this, how to present an argument, show evidence and persuasion. That’s where the Foundation Questions come in, because they help to develop the pupil’s understanding of the big question and steer the outcomes. Without the supporting questions the students become confused and the outcomes chaotic. The skill with the Foundation question is to write them so that they support and steer but don’t dictate obvious outcomes. Think of them like giving clues to the answer.


Here is an example of an essential question I have written based on Arte Povera:
Is the world’s greatest art just a product for rich, intelligent people?

Supporting foundation questions:
Why is some art worth millions when other art is not?
What effect does this have on artists?
What makes some art great and other art not?

✴ The Arte Povera artists in the 1960’s made art out of rubbish to attack the snobbery of the art world and the high prices of art. Many artists to this day make art from rubbish and unwanted objects and their art is worth a lot of money. How should we value art?

✴ “You owe the companies nothing. You especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.” (attributed to) BANKSY.
However, Banksy’s art is now so valuable that people actually want him to graffiti on their building, so when is graffiti art good and when is it vandalism?

✴ Can beautiful art be made from rubbish?

This type of approach not only brings more interested curiosity from your pupils, but they have greater autonomy to work in ways that interest them.
Once ideas and responses begin to flow you should find an increase in eagerness to get started and this is where you need to balance the amount you hold them back with the need to think about what skills they have, what criteria their idea needs to be successfully executed and what the project learning objectives are, so that you don’t stifle that enthusiasm. This is where further questions come in and in fact, they should support every step of the process:

• Which materials will you need to make your idea?
• Have you used these before?
• How successful were you the last time you used them?
• Where can you get the help and support you need to practice the skills and techniques you need?

Throughout the process you will need regular evaluations to ask; ‘Do you need to alter and adjust your idea in light of what you’ve just done?’

You might use supportive comments from other pupils for improvement. ‘How might this person improve their work?’ Or to focus the group on something you know needs improving, direct the question thus: ‘What do you think might improve this work’. Again, the emphasis is on steering and guiding not dictating. You are supporting, showing and helping them to self-analyse through dialogue, evaluation and collaboration. Making art in this way is very different to the standard process model you may be used to. It takes time for pupils to be able to achieve the same standard of outcomes you may be used to, but it’s more exciting, dynamic and ultimately less stressful for you, because you are putting the responsibility for learning back onto the pupil where it belongs.

‘The Art of Questions’ is available from Paul’s website, and explains in more depth the theories and techniques of using questions in the art room for projects, exploring materials and developing autonomous learners.


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