Closed Questions? Open Answers!

Established definitions of open and closed answers are that they are the responses to open and closed questions respectively. I don’t agree. I think a closed answer is one which is intended to shut off further questioning while it’s counterpart, an open answer invites the questioner to ask more questions as a result.

When I was about 12 or 13, in my first years at secondary school (about grade 8-9 elsewhere?) I was a big-brain science geek. Science class was my favourite class and I read voraciously especially on physics with a particular interest in cosmology and anything to do with “the fabric of reality”.

The only problem was that for my science teacher, I was a nightmare. Most of my classmates were just trudging through the class and the teacher was trying to deliver on the curriculum. I questioned everything. I was, especially on the physics material, read to a level far in advance of most of my classmates and in some cases, even beyond my teacher. This presented her with a huge problem which she dealt with by answering my questions (when they got to the point that the answers would add confusion to understanding the curriculum material) with the best “closed answer” I’ve ever heard: “…because that’s the way God made it”.

That’s an answer designed to close off further questions if ever I heard one. My teacher, just trying to teach the sufficient material from the curriculum to pass the exam (which is, after all, the point of education – isn’t it?)  to a bunch of (largely) uninterested pubescent teens needed a way of closing my questions down so that there was no real way for me to question any further.

By contrast, a few years later, when doing physics as a subject for my leaving cert (about grade 11-12) a young science teacher joined my school just out of training college and took over my physics class from our retiring teacher of the time. She was a physics enthusiast as well as a teacher and where possible would answer questions in class but more importantly, if a subject was just too complex and likely to lead to confusion she would ask me to come and ask my questions after class.

I loved those after-class talks. Ok, so I admit that I was probably driven by more desires than just “knowledge” as she was not much older than me (probably 5 years), intelligent and beautiful and interested in the same topics I was. Let’s face it, I was in teen crush heaven but I was also delighted to be sharing and debating with someone in a mutually beneficial knowledge transfer.

Whenever I asked questions at these sessions, she would endevour (I’m not sure if this was consciously or just an intrinsic skill on her part) to answer with what I think of as open answers. That is: the answer was specifically framed to invite more questions, even if my question was closed. This benefitted us both as often the questions I would ask would be close to, or beyond the limits of her knowledge on the subject and she would take them away to research or to read the material I was reading which she had “missed” or not heard of.

The net effect was a sharing of knowledge (and new questions) benefitting us both, far beyond the simple “teacher-student” dynamic where the knowledge transfer is fundamentally one way and questions are to be answered in a way which discourages many more questions.

The contrast between these two experiences interests me. I understand completely the pressures that teachers are under and the desire not to “confuse” young minds with information they don’t yet have the knowledge and cognitive frameworks to assimilate but I wonder if there wasn’t a missed opportunity on the part of the first teacher to break the shackles of conventional curriculum and enrich not only my learning but possibly her own as well.

That’s always been an important lesson for me and one which, hopefully, will help me to answer the inevitable “Why?…but Why?….” questions from my 2 1/4 year old daughter (they’re just starting) in a way that opens us both up to possibilities and opportunities for learning.

I also believe it’s an important consideration for leaders. There are definitely questions which need closed answers but I think it’s of great benefit to understand when answering what you’re doing and to use open answers, where appropriate, to not only answer the question at hand but to open up the possibilities for learning for you both.

(P.S. Last Night, while putting my daughter to bed, I spectacularly failed to answer the question: “Why is Yellow?”. If you can help, answers on a postcard please…)

Joe Vaughan

Stardust dancin on the night...


comments powered by Disqus