Sunday, November 28, 2010

Divergent Questions: Another Kind of Power

If you have been following the last couple of posts, you know what's coming next: making the case for the power of divergent questions.

What is a divergent question?
Think about Frost's "The Road Not Taken": Two roads diverged in a yellow wood... Divergence is the possibility of difference, of going in different directions. When we are talking about questions, we're referring to a question that can reasonably generate a variety of responses. For example:

How might we approach this problem?

Do you hear the intention behind that question? It acknowledges that there is more than one legitimate answer. We can imagine a facilitator asking that question to start a discussion about multiple possibilities. As a result, this question encourages broader thinking.

We need to answer three questions about divergent questions:
1. How do you phrase them?
2. Why would you bother?
3. When do you use them?

How to phrase questions intended to generate divergent thinking
This is the easiest part. In terms of the wording, the difference between convergent and divergent questions is subtle; in terms of the response, the results are worlds apart. Divergent questions are open to multiple responses. That's it. The easiest way to make that happen is to take a convergent question and insert a "do you think" in the middle:

Convergent: Who is the best actor on the stage today?
Divergent: Who do you think is the best actor on the stage today?

Never mind that the question, even phrased convergently, was asking for an opinion. What we're after is phrasing that opens up the discussion.

Here's another way: Change present-tense verbs to "might":

Convergent: What type of therapeutic intervention would help this child?
Divergent: What type of therapeutic intervention might help this child?

The key in phrasing is that our purpose (as described in the last post) is to use the kind of question that is right for the situation and the part of the discussion process we are in.

This is getting long again. Let's look at the why and when in another post.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Convergent Questions Have a Role

OK, so that last post took a while to get to the point. This one will be different. I’ll give you the main ideas right up front, so you can decide whether you’re interested in hearing more:

• Convergent questions are a great way to nail down the facts.
• They are like the "up or down vote" that Congress has been talking about, in that they enable you to get an answer and move on.
• Because of those strengths, they have some limitations.
• Chief among those limitations is the tendency to stop the thinking of others, particularly creative thinking.
• What are the implications for teaching, and for a facilitator who wants to get discussion going?

Convergent questions nail down the facts. Do you watch David Gregory on "Meet the Press?" He has grown significantly in his ability to challenge his guests, and much of it has been based on his use of convergent questions to "cut through the bull." He asks a political candidate exactly what programs should be cut, and the candidate goes into the spiel about how priorities will be set. So David asks again, narrowing the question even more, "OK. So can you name one example of a program that you think should be cut?" Whether the candidate answers or not, the question focused the dialogue on specifics - a really good way to get at facts, or to determine that they are missing.

Convergent questions act like the "up or down vote" that Congress has been talking about. Debates about issues, discussions about complex topics, and graduate theses all have something in common: they can easily go pretty far afield. In each of these situations, there should be room for that kind of dialogue. At some point, though, we want to move to closure or action. Enter convergent questions and the "up or down vote": are we going to do this, or not?

In “calling the question,” convergence works by stopping the far-ranging thinking. We are asked to vote, to decide, to choose. Yes, I agree with your thesis, or OK: I want the blue one, or Yes, we’ll change the assumptions about health care. Case closed; issue decided – at least for now. And we move on to another challenge.

So, if we are trying to make a decision, and if we have already examined our alternatives, it may be time for that convergent question, time to get the parties involved to literally converge on an answer.

On the other hand, when we begin with the convergent question, we may produce the opposite of convergence; that is, we may polarize. By polarize, I mean invite individuals or groups to take positions, positions which they will now focus on defending. The open discussion and mutual problem-solving may now be over. Fisher and Ury, in their Getting to Yes, a best-selling study of negotiation a couple of decades ago, identified this dynamic as counter-productive, although not always avoidable.

What are the implications for a classroom or for the facilitation of a learning process more generally? Let me address that question with a story.

I attended a presentation recently in which a colleague facilitated a discussion of training methodology among a group of about 20 peers, most of whom were experienced instructional designers. Even under the best of circumstances, a presentation to peers with similar experience to one’s own can be one of the most challenging to make, surpassed only by the openly hostile audience. When brought in as the “expert” among novices, one can take the role of the diagnostician, asking specific, convergent questions, and presenting, or leading the group to a conclusion. Not among peers, though, and probably not in a session intended to be “a sharing of experience.”

What happens when the facilitator in a peer-oriented session asks a lot of convergent questions?
Example 1
Take a look at the evaluation form in the back of the handout before we start. What do you notice about this evaluation form that’s unusual?
Participant thought:
Hmmm….looks pretty straightforward. Lots of questions. Not that different from what I use, except maybe for these questions about “my participation.” That might be what this facilitator is after. But I’m not sure that I want to be the guinea pig here…why doesn’t the facilitator just make the point?

Example 2
Let’s start with your design process. How do you go about defining what you’ll do in your session?
Participant thought:
That could be a loaded question. We may be on the same wavelength – starting with the outcomes & results I want; or this facilitator may be setting us up for a whole different approach. I don’t want to be the one who becomes the counter-example here.

This line of questioning is not going to generate a lot of discussion. A shame, because discussion is what the facilitator really wanted. There was no hidden agenda. The facilitator just didn’t know how to tap into that reservoir of experience in a way that would open up the floodgates of ideas. Instead of engaging my interest in the topic, the facilitator invited me to play a game of GWIT: Guess What I’m Thinking.

Alternatives? Sure – for another blog post. The key point here is that effective questioning is a function of multiple variables – the situation, the nature of the relationship between facilitator and participants, and – most important – the part of the process involved. And yes – other kinds of questions work better for some parts of the process. To be continued…

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Teachers, Poets, Questions

Teachers are not poets? Depends on the teacher, of course. I'm talking about the ones who get you out of yourself, the ones who get you to think - willingly and freely - who tap into your imagination. How do they do it?

One way they do it is by asking questions.

Not just any questions, of course. Police officers ask questions. And if you remember Dragnet, you know what they're after: "just the facts, ma'am." That's their job: to find out what happened, or, at least, what each individual thinks happened. If they ask enough people, triangulate, correct for skews, they just might get at that elusive essence: The Objective Truth.

Lawyers ask questions, too. But a trial lawyer asks a question for a calculated purpose: to put a fact into evidence. The lawyer asks the question to get the witness to say what the lawyer expects the witness to say. Purposeful, but not what this post is about.

Salespeople ask questions. Many of their questions are designed to lead to a particular kind of answer. The saleperson may not know what that answer is, but it's got to be of a certain nature - one that will create an opportunity - or make it much clearer that there cannot be one.

Are we getting warmer?

Scientists ask questions, too. Scientists asks questions because they really do want answers. They have to be very careful about how they ask, and what they assume when they get some kind of answer. If they do frame the question carefully, painstakingly, persistently, and logically, they move us ahead, one nano-step question at a time. Not fun - but eventually, effective.

A question defines a process - a mental process. A question is a tool - sometimes a hammer, sometimes an unfortunate screwdriver. Sometimes - when we are at our most creative, or most lucky - a question can act as a lever.

What good is a lever? In case you have not been hanging on every word of this blog for the past 18 months...a lever has at least one valuable characteristic: it enables you to increase the amount of output you can gain for a relatively small amount of input.

This is the point at which I'm going to turn to two of my favorite social scientists and get to the point: JP Guilford, Mary Meeker, and the Structure of Intellect (SOI) model. And I'm going to look at just a part of a part of their cube, to focus on two kinds of questions: convergent questions, and divergent questions.

Convergent questions are aimed at particular kinds of answers; in essence, they ask responders to converge on particular kinds of responses. There may be some dispute about the correct answer, but the ballpark you're in is well-defined:

Who were the hitters with the highest averages of all time?
Which are the largest cities in Europe?
Which cars have the highest trade-in values?

And these are the police and lawyer questions. The target for the answer may sometimes be open to interpretation, but it's a target, nevertheless. We know about where it is, approximately how large it is, and what direction we need to look to see it.

Divergent questions are different animals. Chameleons? No, more evanescent than a chameleon. A divergent question asks me to open my mind and imagine:

What hitters would you rather not face?
What do you see as the most interesting cities in Europe?
How do you value your car?

These questions are divergent because individual answers can diverge greatly - in fact, move in completely different directions - and still be reasonable responses to the same question. They are questions that lead to questions, to ideas, and perhaps - to new thinking.

Divergent questions are the levers of great teachers...and of poets. Shall I compare thee (this increasingly frigid MN winter day) to a summer's day?