Walter Jost: The Art of Asking Questions

Walter Jost: The Art of Asking Questions


These leading questions, prompts, “re-sources,” are intended to serve as examples of the kinds of questions both teacher and students in any discipline can use to organize their inquiry.  They are to be added to, subtracted from, or otherwise reconfigured, as appropriate to individual situations.




1.  Questions of RECOVERY of DATA: Getting clear about what the class is                          talking about:  


a.       Our interests in the material: Who is “we”?  What counts as important for us?  What are we trying to do?     


b.      The facts/values involved in the problem or text: What feelings, beliefs, characters, actions, events, situations, processes, are worth noting in light of who we are and what we’re doing?


                        c.   How, When, Where, Who, What, To whom and (sometimes) Why?


                        d.  Background principles, prejudices, competence, reliability, good will,

intelligence, “false consciousness” of oneself as well as of other investigators (other students, other scholars, other artists, etc.)




2.  Questions of INQUIRY into RELATIONS of data: how “it” (one’s problem, one’s

text, the period or genre, etc.) is put together (remembering that “it” may not be exhausted by any single text, problem, period and so on):


a.       Parts and wholes, genus and species, circumstances, degree,


                        b.  More complex patterns of action / image/ motivation/ character

                        c.  Sequences (what goes with what): logical, causal, tautological,                                                          psychological, temporal, etc.

                        d.  Similarities, contradictories, contraries, opposites, corollaries, etc.

                        e.  Levels (or “aspects,” “dimensions,” “stages” etc.) of meaning,

motivation, action, event, story             

f.  Ultimate terms (or “first principles”) ordering each level of relata

g.       Why did who do what to whom?



(Numbers1 and 2 above are MORE or LESS Convergent Questions; see * below)


(Numbers 3 and 4 following are MORE or LESS Divergent Questions; see ** below)



3. Questions of INTERPRETATION of MEANING of related data: what

one is willing to hypothesize, claim, show, or argue?


a.       What are you hypothesizing/claiming about the matter?

b.      What are your reasons for your claim?

c.       What evidence do you have?

d.      What assumptions are you relying on?

e.       How is the evidence/reason connected to the claim?

f.        how do you respond to alternative evidence/ reasons/objections/                                   claims/authorities?




4.  Questions of JUDGMENT of VALUE of meaningfully related data: as

analysed, understood, and interpreted in argumentative dialogue:


                        a.  Like / admire / value / endorse

                        b. Appropriateness and/or truth

                        c. What’s this to me (and hence to others--i.e., what counts to us now?)












*Convergent questions refer to more or less closed-ended and often leading questions

regarding more or less determinate facts—and involve heavy reliance on memory, summary, synopsis, etc..  Higher-order convergent questions involve more conceptualizing, require more observation and introspection of emotions and values, etc.


**Divergent refers to more or less open-ended and often disinterested questions

involving more or less  indeterminate issues.  Higher-order divergent questions  emphasize the need to persuade, to imagine analogies and metaphors, to establish and judge competing ways to pattern phenomena, etc.









By Percy Bysshe Shelley



I met a traveler from an antique land                                                      a

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone                         b

Stand in the desert . . .  Near them, on the sand,                                    a

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,                         b-

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,                          a

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read                                         c

Which yet survive, stamped on those lifeless things,                                d

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:                                c

And on the pedestal these words appear:                                              e

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:                                                d

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”                            e-

Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay                                            f

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare                                           e-

The lone and level sands stretch far away.                                             f

Meta-Level Exercise for Teachers Regarding Their Own Teaching:


In this exercise we are engaged in meta-level questions, trying to recover our own interests and activities regarding questioning in class; discover relations among them; interpret meanings and their significance; and judge whether and how we might improve them.


1.      Does this “art” seem familiar to you?  Can you identify (a) which section(s) of the art you consider “most” or “more important,” and (b) whether your choice of questions to ask varies throughout a semester, or even throughout a class day?  


2.      How much time and effort do you spend in class on convergent as distinct from divergent questions?  Is your answer related to the kinds of material you, and the students, teach and learn?  


3.  When you ask questions, whose questions are they--that is, are they driven                    by the text or problem in class, by your interests, by the students’ interests, by

      the disciplinary field, by nobody or happenstance, by some combination the  

      above?  In other words, who’s doing what to whom?


3.      Are you satisfied that your answer to #3 is, in fact, what you want to be doing

in class?  Why?