Tag Archives: critical thinking

The Art of Asking Questions

manufacturer and builder headingThe ability and art of asking questions is not just the sole domain of teachers. Articles about asking questions can be found everywhere. One does not have to read a pedagogical tome written by a PhD or a study written by some research team from an Ivy League school. One can find useful information in many places. And sometimes it makes more sense than a hypothetical 300 page book on “The Art of Questioning.”

Here is a gem of an article about asking questions that I found in an old trade magazine “The Manufacturer and Builder,” June 1870 by way of a video from a woodworker on YouTube. The article is entitled simply “Asking Questions” and is the story of a son remembering what his father, a farmer, taught him. The rules are simple and homespun. They are built on years of wisdom and may have to be read two or three times to understand their meaning.

art of asking questionsThe rules the young man puts together about questions are simple:

  1. Every man knows something that I do not know.
  2. Every thing, living or inanimate, has something to tell me that I do not know.
  3. It is better to ask questions of things than of men; but it is better to ask of men than not to ask at all.
  4. Lazy questions, impertinent questions, and conceited questions are the greatest of nuisances. They are like conundrums without any answers – they tend to make men dislike all questions; and when asked of nature, they get no response from her whatever.
  5. Asking questions is of no use, if a man forgets the replies.
  6. People like to be asked, in the proper time and manner, concerning matters which they understand. When they refuse to satisfy such inquiries, it is generally because the matter is not their business, or they think it is none of mine.
  7. Remembering a thing is not necessarily believing it. I will remember whatever is told me by men or by nature; but I will bear in mind that men may be mistaken, or I myself may misunderstand both words and facts
  8. The way to remember the answer to any question is to associate it in the mind with other answers connected with the same subject. It is well, therefore to follow one subject, if possible, until sufficient has been learned about it to be easily remembered; for the more one knows the more one can remember, while isolated facts soon get lost. As my father said, “Wholesale stores are the easiest to keep in order.”
  9. Never be ashamed not to know, but be ashamed not to learn.
  10. Never pretend to know; as for pretending to be ignorant, there is no danger of that, since all men are ignorant. Even in asking questions concerning the subjects which I have most carefully studied, I may truly say I desire to learn; for I may have made mistakes or omissions in my study which another might correct. As my father said, “Judge Pickerell spent forty years in collecting coins, and found at last a coin that was not in his collection in the hands of a beggar, who had that and nothing else.”
  11. As my father said, “Every stone is a diamond, unless it is not; therefore every stone may be a diamond, until you know it is not; and in finding out that it is not a diamond, you may discover that it is something more useful.”
  12. As my father said, “A man who is forever asking and never answering is like the swamp in our forty-acre lot. You can’t raise crops without rain on one hand and drainage on the other.”
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Intelligence Analysis and Teaching U.S. History

Stay with me. This is about bell ringers.

Next year standards for all my classes are changing. We are also changing from a block schedule to a period schedule. I thought I would take the opportunity to change the way I teach; to infuse new enthusiasm into what I’ve been doing the last four years. That includes using bell ringers. And I have to say I really don’t like the name “bell ringer”. It sounds so…I dunno…so…cutesy. I need something more sarcastic and real. Oh! I know what it sounds like – busy work. How about simply “Information Analysis?

SPC Turner - 1985 - 1987 10th SFG

Specialist Turner at CBTI Co., 10th SFG(A), Ft. Devens, MA doing old school intel analysis (no computers!) 1985-87

As I’ve written about before, I spent 21 years in military intelligence as an intelligence analyst. During that time, I processed tens of thousands of Intelligence Information Reports (IIRs), wrote hundreds of intelligence assessments, and edited, approved, or processed thousands of intelligence assessments and co-authored several publications within the intelligence community. It was a great job and I really miss the energy that went with debating other analysts about theories and conclusions. There was little that was more exciting than seeing your boss sitting before a congressional committee answering questions for which you had prepared answers or having a SFODA (Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha) return from a mission and hearing that your intel helped them out.

The_Intelligence_Process_JP_2-0

The Intelligence Process (JP2.0 Joint Intelligence 2013)

I’ve been looking for ways to integrate the concept of the intelligence process or tradecraft into the investigation and discovery of primary sources that is inherent in teaching history. I believe I’ve found the very beginning of doing that. It’s very rudimentary but it might be successful. And if nothing else, it might be interesting for students to see that what they learn in the classroom is actually used in the “real-world”. Teachers can find all sorts of great resources from the various intelligence agencies on analysis and evaluation that may help them in class.

But back to bellringers. I think what I’m going to do is the following schedule:

Mondays – Read primary source. Identify relevant and diagnostic information from the source (using the National Archives [NARA] primary source worksheet on a form MSWord I created) (questions 1-4 or 5)

Tuesdays – Read primary source second time. Process and evaluate data in source (using the NARA form [pdf] (question 6a – 6d)

Wednesdays – Evaluate what source does not answer, what questions the source creates. What are its “intelligence gaps?” (question 6e)

Thursdays – Integrate information from the primary source and secondary information sources (classroom instruction) together and predict what the outcome might be

Fridays – Write an “assessment” about the primary source(s), secondary source(s), predict an outcome, and defend your position

I won’t spend more than 5-7 minutes daily for this activity. I won’t use long primary sources; nothing more than a half page of text. I will use all sort of primary sources but start off extremely simple and use primary source documents for a few weeks before moving to other types of primary sources. This format can be used for all my social studies classes – U.S. history, world history, economics, government, and contemporary issues.

Uncertainty is built into the process. So doubt and questions are good and encouraged. It’s part of being an analyst and a historian. Being an analyst is much like being a weatherman: your prediction won’t always be accurate. I once had a commander in Kuwait tell me,” SGT Turner, don’t just tell me what happened. I can get that from CNN. Tell me what it impact it will have and what you think will happen. I don’t care if you’re right only 48% of the time. You’re being paid to tell me what is going to happen.” Realistically, I think 48% accuracy would have got me fired! But it did give a young sergeant the confidence to make the hard judgment without fear of being crucified for it.

I would appreciate any feedback, thoughts, or constructive criticism you can provide.

UPDATE: Forget bell-ringers, I’m looking at turning my whole class into a analysis section everyday, complete with “intelligence” objectives, or Commander’s Critical Intelligence Requirements (CCIRs), Primary Intelligence Requirements (PIRs), Requests for Information (RFIs), Collection Management, etc insofar as it is possible to do that in a classroom with transitory students.