Guiding Questions

“Creating a Guiding Question requires reflection, study, and honesty.  It may be something a teacher, a clergymen, your parents, or a friend said, an article you read, a movie you saw, etc, that has stuck in your mind.  Often, you can’t put a name to why these thoughts are floating around but I would call it curiosity.”  Richard Kamins

Below is an abbreviated version of the story I’m going to share with my students.  It’s hard to say how well it’ll resonate because they’re young and I’m not.  Some will likely see me and my guiding question as foreign, and baffling.  It won’t help them get a good GPA, or a job.  It won’t add up to “success.”

This is odd to me. It’s supposed to be young people who dream the impractical, who ask “what if” questions.  It’s supposed to be us older folks who tell them to stop dreaming and get a job.

I won’t belabor the point that William Deresiewicz, Warren Berger, and others make so well – that in their years of schooling they’ve become excellent sheep.  

One of our jobs in FYS is to give them permission to push back on the game they’ve become so good at playing, the system they’ve learned to navigate.  We want them to ask ‘what if?” and “why not?”  more than “”what do you want?”

They’re not “ready” for the idea of a guiding question because they’ve been conditioned to eschew such impractical things.  But they are ready because they’re 18, and 18 year olds dream.  It’s my job to help them realize that their dream is not in the way, but the center of gravity of who they are (even if who they are is not what their studying to do…)

Siggy has a technique that’s designed to bridge this gap.  She asks her students to look for an article of some recent happening in their major, or area of interest. Her students use what they find to share with their peers a bit about their chosen field. She told me her students often surprise themselves with what they discover!

She sometimes has them look at these same articles from the perspective of another discipline, or to identify a possible “wicked problem” from within its text.  She tells me that for the students who are “major-fixated” this  is great scaffolding toward seeing their major in broader context.

I also have a comment from Betsy Rosenblum’s PC, Aimee Trottier  (our PC’s are amazing assets!) that might help your students.

She says, “The development of a guiding question is a lengthy process, throughout it you may change topics, revise for broadness and clarity, or completely start over, and that’s okay.  My question started off very simple, something along the lines of ‘How can we make sure education is equal?’, but through research and experience I found an interest in disabilities and their effect on education.

Aimee’s guiding question is now, “Considering the growing presence of disabilities among children in the United States, how can we assure that all individuals receive an equal education?

She adds, “My focus on education and psychology obviously led me to this, and after the research that turned me to the disability aspect I decided to get my SPED certification as well.”

Guiding questions are, for the educated person, quite fluid.

As we learn we reframe our understanding of every we thought we knew.  Our facts may not have been wrong, but our understanding of the facts may have been incomplete. As we learn we become acutely aware of things we have yet to learn to complete the picture

This has been the story of my career. I am regularly reframing my understanding as I learn new things and broaden my experience. This is what I will try to impart when I tell my story.

My degrees are in International Relations and Strategic Studies.  My career has taken me from small town news reporting, University advancement, school improvement planning, and later to emergency preparedness planning.  I’ve had a parallel career in the Army Reserves including several years of active duty command time during this long war.

Throughout – no matter what I was doing – I was animated by a question. It was the thing that compelled me, caused me to learn, challenge, sometimes fail, and of late, teach.  

I wanted to know what it meant to lead.

Not the Walmart bromides peddled by quick-fix books.  Not the conventional wisdom of hierarchical bosses peddling their doctrines.

The questions that formed in my mind were matters of perception. Why did people follow? What was motivation? Why would drive people to hate the very personalities I thought personified “leading”?

I would read novels and watch movies wondering why we revered “leaders” in fiction that we’d likely despise in real life.  Is it ever possible to truly know someone, or do we always encounter a facade? I would study everyday people and situations looking for clues.

Art, media, culture, philosophy, theology, power…not surprisingly, I was intuitively forming an issue map. I was trying to see the system at work so I could understand the whole, not just the parts. I knew the whole was somehow more than the sum of the parts, but wasn’t sure how.

I am still investigating.

We all have questions, and many don’t relate to how we make our living.  A common trend among Noble Laureates in the sciences is that they are also accomplished painters, poets, and musicians.

  • What causes conflict?
  • What is art? Music?
  • What’s the case for God?
  • How can bees fly?
  • What’s the role of nursing in the 21st century?

These questions aren’t always linear and answer bound. Bees? There are larger questions of physics and engineering at play. Do we truly understand flight, or will future generations look at us in the same way we look at 19th century scientists and physicians?  As a side note, their issue maps would focus not on solving the case for god, for example, but on why this question is so complex.  

When you are studying to earn your degree, what burns in your gut? What questions do you have that might seem silly (and therefore remain hidden) but that might animate you?

These are called Guiding Questions. They are not synonymous with ego-centric rational goal (how to get a good grade, a job, make more money, be a better nurse).

They are the thoughts we have late at night or with close friends and loved ones that give our jobs meaning, our money purpose, and our professions more than doing the job.

Good guiding questions are:

  • Personally relevant & incite curiosity
  • Require multiple perspectives across humanities, social sciences, sciences, arts
  • Do not have a “right” answer
  • Persistent and unavoidable as part of the human condition
  • Open-ended
  • Lend themselves to focused inquiry on a particular topic
  • Require critical thinking
  • Non-judgmental

They’re about being.   What’s your question?

NOTE: This is an updated version of a post from last year.


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