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.


Have your students got the G Factor?

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General Intelligence or g and it’s impact on education

The pursuit of intelligence in education is extremely important to us as educators. SAT’s GCSE’s, A Levels, Degrees, are all barometers of our pupil’s intelligence and thus, our performance as teachers. How much have our pupil’s progressed under our tutelage, how effective are we as professionals? There is an abundance of information about this on the web, on Twitter etc. and lots of stuff on multiple intelligence, Blooms, learning styles and much much more, all aimed at helping you to be able to improve the cognition of your students. But what do the scientists say REALLY works? Writing in New Scientist magazine, Linda S. Gottfredson, professor of education at the University of Delaware and an expert in the social and cultural implications of intelligence, outlines what the current scientific understanding of intelligence is.

This article is my own summary transcript of her article.

g intelligence

The notion of ‘g’ (or general intelligence) prevails as the primary label by which scientists measure a persons ability to deal with cognitive complexity. This idea was first outlined by Charles Spearman in the early Twentieth Century and resulted in ferocious debate ever since. Spearman and his supporters on one side, who defend the power of his general factor of intelligence and on the other hand, supporters of the multiple intelligence abilities such as verbal, linguistic and spatial. Both sides eventually conceded that both had merit and in 1933 John B. Carroll published his three stratum theory, a pyramid in which the general intelligence ‘g’ factor rests on top, a middle layer comprised of ‘Broad abilities’; fluid intelligence, crystallised intelligence, processing speed, retrieval ability, cognitive speed, visual perception, auditory perception, memory an learning. A bottom level is composed of ‘Narrow abilities’ which are sixty four specialised aptitudes or skills that each relate to the broad abilities on the layer above. The Broad abilities are all composed mostly of g but each containing a different additive that boosts performance in the broad domains. The broad domains contribute to the sixty four narrow abilities, which are a complex composite of g and the broad domains.


This structure enables measurement of intelligence in multiple domains without compromising the notion of g intelligence. This multi-facetted approach, where all intelligence is underpinned by ‘g’ makes the notion of multiple intelligence implausible. However romantic it might seem to our inclusive education policies to attempt to assimilate different types of learners in our lessons, it appears that they don’t exist. All aspects of intelligence are driven by the g factor. This notion has been repeatedly tested and found to line up with diverse features of the brain, from relative size to processing speed and to defy cultural and species variance. Most cognitive variance comes from a variation in g.

But whilst the g factor as an indicator of intelligence is accepted, finding it in the brain is more difficult. Where is g in the brain and how do we get it? That is not certain but most likely, g comes from the actions of hundreds of genetic variants and environments which result in the brain’s overall efficiency. Higher g is useful for complex cognitive tasks such as school and for being associated with lower levels of damaging behaviour such as substance abuse, chronic illness and even premature death. It seems higher g is a real advantage, however it is not an indicator of emotional well-being, happiness or conscientiousness.

So is intelligence inherited?

The answer to this questions is that heritability of intelligence rises steadily with age, from thirty percent in preschool until by adulthood it is around eighty percent. This indicates that we cannot boost low intelligence, even into the average range, but we can add knowledge relative to the individual, to help them to know more and achieve more with the intelligence they have.

How does the home or school environment alter a person’s intelligence?

The answer is surprisingly little. Test on identical twins adopted into different homes with identical genes but with different environments show that IQ closely lines up with genetic similarity. In fact, these tests show that they answer IQ tests almost as if they were the same person and adoptees in the same household as if they were strangers. This indicates that most family environments are equally effective at nurturing intelligence regardless of where they grew up. This might be very frustrating for teachers trying to shape their pupils in particular ways and in any case, as people age, they tend to seek out the environments that suit their own cognitive complexity. But don’t despair teachers! These tests simply measure general intelligence, they don’t factor in aspects of education that define success in tests, such as method, discipline, rigour and learning approach. You can’t alter a person’s intelligence, however hard you try, but you can increase knowledge in the individual and create an environment conducive to more effective acquisition of the skills and habits of success.

Fluid intelligence versus crystallised intelligence

Some researchers distinguish between tests of fluid intelligence (gF); on-the-spot learning, reasoning and problem solving and crystallised intelligence (gC); broad cultural knowledge, prior intellect and vocabulary. During youth they rise in tandem but after that gF abilities decline whereas gC abilities remain constant. The implications of this are that the gC intellect buffers the decline of the gF fluid intelligence. Older people are generally less able to solve novel problems but compensate by being able to draw on their wisdom and experience. The most effective way of slowing down these losses in cognition is through physical exercise, which protect’s the brain by improving the body’s cardiovascular health. Also important is the avoidance of smoking, drinking and head injuries etc. Mental brain training has limited effect in boosting only specific skills.

Effects of environment and other factors on intelligence

Also of significant effect on our intellect is the natural variations in our cognitive ability caused by sleep deprivation, hunger, sickness etc. all of which cause significant fluctuations in our intellect over the course of a day or week. So when schools start too early, or when they fail to recognise the environmental needs of their pupils, these all affect performance. Of significant importance to educators is one that we have known for some time; that different levels of intelligence require different types of support. Educational and Military psychologists have shown people of below-average intelligence learn best when given concrete, step-by-step, hands on instruction with lots of practice, whereas people of above average intelligence learn best when allowed to structure their own learning. A one-size-fits-all approach stunts the learning of both types. Schools can get far more out of pupils by educating them to their personal potential. In fact cognitive overload is of particular concern in modern life. Medical trails have shown that there is a significant need to simplify the management of medication, especially in patients with a lower IQ. Schools might do well to heed this advice, when greater demand is being placed on pupils for higher exam results.

In the drive for increased success in our schools there is a thirst for a cognitive enhancer, a magic bullet that will provide the g factor for all, but this is a long way off. The most effective solution to date seems to be meditation. Evidence suggests that mindful meditation provides measurable cognitive improvement including attention and memory. In her final paragraph Linda addresses the ‘Flynn effect’; the idea that humanity is getting progressively smarter, since each successive generation is scoring on average 3 points higher per decade on IQ tests. This is unlikely a factor of cultural environment and the increasing complex world we live in since it is established that IQ is not affected by environment. It may be a side effect of increasingly better public health and growth. Also diversity of marriage and population may result in increased vigour of genes. More likely is that certain biologically rooted cognitive abilities related to IQ tests are improving. In short, we are getting better at passing the tests, rather than our whole cognitive ability improving.

From an article in New Scientist – 15 ideas you need to understand 2016,

by Professor Linda S. Gottfredson, University of Delaware, Newark.


Linda focusses on the social implications of intelligence including how cultural institutions are shaped by the wide variation in human cognitive capability.