25 ways to make yourself unpopular: #18 Don’t ask questions

You’d think that giving people in your team the freedom to teach ICT how they like would be met, by them a least, with unbridled enthusiasm. You’d think that the best way to get on with your boss would be to offer no resistance to his latest idea, even if you secretly believe it is completely nuts. You’d think that not challenging your students when they proudly show you the results of their programming or desktop publishing efforts would be much better than the opposite, lest their (supposedly) fragile self-esteem be damaged.

You’d be wrong.

Let me add a caveat: you’d be wrong in your assumptions if you work in what I call a “learning organisation”. A learning organisation is one which learns from its past, and from its mistakes as well as its successes. It is an organisation whose constituent parts, ie its members, are geared to learning – that is to say, whose members have the goal of self-improvement.

Assuming that your questioning emanates from a desire to improve the learning of your students and the professional development of your team rather than from an attempt to bolster your own ego, most people would welcome it because it will help them improve what they do. Even if they conclude that there is no reason for them to change anything they’ve done, they will still have benefitted from the process of considering a different point of view. By not asking your questions, you deprive them of an opportunity to go through that process, and therefore of the opportunity to improve.

So what sort of questions might be asked in an ICT context? Obviously, hundreds of questions could be listed, but in ICT there would be issues about what equipment as required and accessibility. There would also be, for teachers, the issues of what exactly is being addressed, what potential level it is at, and how to assess students in that context. Unfortunately, ICT is one of those subjects in which what you think you’re addressing and what you are addressing could be different things. Thus, a good question to ask a colleague who comes up with a different approach might be something like:

Could a student succeed in this task without having any knowledge of ICT?

The questions to ask students might be more to do with clarity, such as:

Would I be able to understand what you’re saying in this presentation if you weren’t there to talk me through it?


Could your solution be used by someone who neither had nor wanted any technical know-how whatsoever?

You can see from these questions that their purpose is not to put people in their place, but to help them make progress. They are ways of nudging them to the edge of their comfort and knowledge zone, and beyond. Ultimately, nobody gets anywhere by being given unspecific praise, like “Well done” or “That looks really useful”. When people tell me they enjoy reading my newsletter, Computers in Classrooms, I always ask them why – not because I’m looking for an ego-boost, but because if I know what they like, and what they don’t, I may be able to make the newsletter even better.

Finally, I think the most powerful question of all is “So what?”. It can be altered according to the situation, but at its heart it is asking:

Does this add anything to what we already had?

What’s the point of it?

Is it worth the time, effort and money?

Of course, if you were to ask those questions as baldly as that, you really would make yourself unpopular!