Friday, August 23, 2013


My phone buzzes.  Text message from my daughter.  “Would the recipe for your Japanese salad be easily accessible?”  Yes.  I photograph the recipe, taking the time to congratulate myself that I didn’t type it out, and I text it.  Done.  

So easy.  Straightforward.  Simple. Question, then answer--the natural order of things.  Just like the question I field from an affable driver who signals me during my walk. “Can you tell me how to get to Park Boulevard?“  Sure. I can do that. 

“Do a 180.  Go east to the four-way stop.  Keep going straight, and turn left at the sign for Park Boulevard.”

“Thanks so much.”

Another easy question.  Just like that, an answer, and life continues.  This question invites an answer, and rewards the respondent with the satisfaction of having helped someone get on with their day.  Sometimes, however, like form-fitting latex masks peeled to reveal the wearer’s real identity, questions reveal their true intent only once the unwary respondent has already committed to an answer.   Not a wrong answer, just not the desired answer.

In fact,  because I didn't discern the mask, so sleek and tight on the face, and I answered the question that was asked, I have botched a few interviews.   “In your view, how is professional learning for teachers best delivered?” an interviewer once asked me.   I was happy to share my views, the fruits of my research and my experience, and I did it well.   What the committee was looking for, however, was a brief treatise on the benefits and challenges inherent in different approaches to professional learning, not what my personal view on the matter might be.   And I did not hear the implicit message.

My pitfall is that I love questions.  I enjoy sharing whatever knowledge I might have on a subject.  I’m not averse to sharing my opinion, either.  When I can help someone, or when someone seems interested in my thoughts on a subject, I feel affirmed.  When the subject is pedagogy, well, I have been known to go on and on, most people too polite to tell me to stop. 

Sessions on cognitive coaching have taught me to treat questions in the professional arena with the same kid gloves.  “Yvette, I want to use portfolios next year.  I know you have used them in your classes.  What suggestions would you have?”  I would have lots, and I would be delighted to share them, as well as other ideas related to portfolio assessment that I have gleaned from reading and interaction with other educators over the years.  However, a direct answer won’t do the teacher any good.  In fact, no matter how well-intentioned I might be, an answer could, over time, erode the teacher’s self-confidence and sense of autonomy.  Better to paraphrase first.  ”So you are planning to assess using portfolios.  What steps might you have already taken to reach that goal?”  The answer to this question will signal a direction—the teacher will share what he or she already has in place, or express once again a need for explicit information.  In the first case, I continue to question; in the second, I ask the teacher’s permission to share what I know.  It all seems so simple now.

Who knew that questions and answers aren’t conjoined twins?  Who knew that answering a question could be the worst thing to do?  So, how do you tell when to answer a question, and when to probe further.  Untangling that conundrum requires the dexterity and finesse of a vascular surgeon.

From experience,  I have learned to answer a question if:
· the need is immediate;
· the information requested is succinct and factual;
·  the information is quickly transferable—phone, email, a few words in conversation.

I desist or probe when
· the question elicits an opinion—in that case, it’s best to analyze both sides of the issue;
· the information solicited is more complex—then, it’s a good idea to explore the questionner’s prior knowledge;
· to answer the question, I would have to speak for longer than thirty seconds.

Replying to questions requires an uncanny ability to read the subtext.  Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, understood that:  You must listen to not only what is said, but what is not said, which is often much more important.  Six decades into my life, I have at least become sensitive to the subtext, to what is not said.  Now, I mean to transform that sensitivity into sure-footed replies, whether the subject is portfolios or Japanese salad.

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