While complaining about Socrates, Thrasymachus claims that "it's easier to ask questions than to answer them." (Republic 336b) The claim seems self-evident because answers seem to be preceded by questions and we are all familiar with questions that have not been answered. In addition, it can huge take huge amount of resources to answer what appear to be straightforward questions.
Even so, one reason why I have always been impressed by Newton's contributions is that his theory is full of answers to questions previously un-thought of. (For example, how do Saturn and Jupiter influence each other's orbits?) This suggests -- as a certain kind of Kantian might insist -- that some questions are only made possible by having the right cognitive structures (including the answers) in place.
Be that as it may, experienced instructors of philosophy are all familiar with the experience that some students ask interesting questions of the material we teach and other students, equally hardworking, ask questions that do not generate interesting discussion. Now, sometimes this can be explained in virtue of the fact that some students have taken philosophy courses before and, through osmotic imitation and example, have acquired a style and genre of question-asking. But that pushes merely the issue back a layer. I have a strong aversion to the idea that there is innate philosophical genius, so I prefer thinking that one might teach asking questions as a skill. In what follows I explain how I teach that.*
Below is an exercise I have used for more than a decade and a half in teaching. As I have noted before I don't think of myself as a very gifted teacher, and I am not one of the folk that wins prizes for teaching. I do consistently get high marks for feedback, and that's partly due to what I am about to share.
I am pretty sure the exercise originated in frustration over students not doing the assigned readings. And I strongly suspect I was introduced to a version of it at Wesleyan (a place where teaching is taken very seriously) by a senior colleague (mea culpa for forgetting). But the assignment has evolved, and with learning software it has become more functional. Here's the exercise that I use in all my courses.
This assignment requires about 150 words (per assignment). The question should be submitted ahead of each seminar meeting on Canvas by 10am the morning of the class-meeting. It has two parts. 1. In the first line, formulate a focused question about the assigned text (and which we will discuss in class). It should consist of one question only. 2. Motivate this question on the basis of an analysis of the text, and provide proper references, quotes, and citations each time.
You need to go beyond the occasion of your question, that is, what prompts it, and explain the source or the reason behind the (conceptual/empirical) puzzle or the textual problem motivating your question. Do not answer your own question. Do not reason by way of further questions. Do not ask rhetorical questions. Try to avoid turning your question into a (thinly) disguised objection. Try not asking the same question as one previously posted.
The assignment has three main purposes: (i) to make sure everybody does the reading and is prepared to discuss it in class; (ii) to teach you the art of close reading; (iii) to teach you how to ask research questions.--Handout by Eric Schliesser
The students can read each other's questions. I always (try) to read them ahead of class (it helps me see what students found problematic), and I use them in leading discussion. This adds to my prep time, but I find it very useful to have some insight into what my students are thinking ahead of class. Sometimes I let one of the students lead of discussion with their own question.
In some courses, I require students to answer at least one of each other's questions after the class meeting (and ahead of the next one). This is especially useful if the course only meets once a week. I have had courses where this generated permanent online discussion by students about the course material. (In most courses, it's clearly just treated as a requirement.) This requirement requires additional instruction on the hand-out (they must cite their sources, make their evidence explicit, etc.); in particular, norms of politeness. I always monitor the discussion, but tend not to comment on it. (I do not correct mistakes, unless these interfere with my learning goals of a course.)
During the first weeks of a course, I provide detailed feedback on my students' questions without answering them. The majority of my feedback has a kind of formal character, e.g., 'you must include a bibliography;' 'remember, you can only ask one question;''notice that your question really involves three distinct issues;' 'you have given the occasion of your question, but you have not explained it yet;' 'notice how the last three sentences of your explanation are not grounded in the text;' 'the way you have phrased this question exhibits vagueness/or lacks focus,' etc. Sometimes I spend time on exhibiting the implied logical complexity of a question.
I never use my feedback to answer these assignments. But sometimes I make explicit a conceptual or textual confusion the student exhibits. After a few weeks, most students get the assignment, and I reduce the feedback I provide. (Sometimes, in the second half of a course, I need to do a refresher week of feedback.)
In the past, my feedback to the students' assignments was always private. But this year I am experimenting on sharing most of my feedback on canvas (it's like blackboard) so they can all learn from these. (I do have option to send a private message in case i have a concern about the student's prep/participation, etc.)
In the past I did not grade the assignments individually, but used them to help shape (upward) my class participation grade. Because I now work in a more legalistic environment, which demands fuller transparency of grading, I now do give them a (rough) grade. (That is private!)
I don't claim all students benefit from this assignment. But I believe it makes class discussion better than it would be. Students learn some writing skills: it teaches them to focus, to be explicit about the steps in their train of thought, and to learn to discover what the nub of the matter is. I also would argue that they learn to become better at helping themselves understand texts.
In addition, I would argue the assignment teaches them how to read: by explaining their confusion(s) in this way, they discover their own hidden presuppositions that they (we all!) tend to project on the text; they learn to pay attention to dissonances and steps in an author's argument.
It's possible that this assignment works best with the kind of material I routinely teach: culturally and historically distant and rhetorically and conceptually complex texts about subjects my students may not encounter daily. But I have also used the technique in courses that were focused on arguments on fairly standard topics, and found it just as useful in that environment.
The downside (for some) is that this is a time-consuming way to teach. It also is rather demanding on the students -- many of which have, of course, very busy lives. But because the course is already rather writing intensive, I tend to require very short papers in order to establish the final grade.
One important effect of the assignment is that I can avoid having students trying to game me. (We all know instructors whose students basically echo what they say [including on exams].) The assignments are focused on the course material.
Does it teach students how to ask questions? I can't say for sure, given the confirmation bias I have. It obviously detracts from the possibility of doing different things with my students--the opportunity costs are not negligible. But when the assignment works well, the student has asked an interesting question, which is both well motivated by and grounded in the text and one that is not answered by the explanation of it as well as generates (in principle) fruitful class discussion about it. Is that sufficient evidence that it's interesting? I can't say for sure, but the assignment keeps me highly motivated to explore the course material jointly with my students.
Do you have ways or techniques to teach your students to ask interesting questions?
*I do so because Tim de Mey, who is a very gifted teacher and somebody who understands it as a craft that can be improved, found the exercise interesting.