Vol 7|No 1|September|1997


Telling Questions

and the Search for INSIGHT

by Jamie McKenzie

On Target

Telling questions lead us (like a smart bomb) right to the target. They are built with such precision that they provide sorting and sifting during the gathering or discovery process. They focus the investigation so that we gather only the very specific evidence and information we require, only those facts which "cast light upon" or illuminate the main question at hand.

Fighting Info-Glut

In the old days of topical research, when a student was told "Go find out about Connecticut," all information was fair game. That might have worked when the information technology was slow and the supply was short, but it is suicidal in a time of electronic information and Info-Glut. A third grader can easily download 400 pages in fifteen minutes! Will they read it?

Remember asking a teacher, "How long must this report be?" Some asked because they didn't want to do more than they needed to do. Others asked because they knew that "longer was better," that more pages often meant a higher grade.

Distill - Distill - Distill

The best grade now goes to the report which shows the most original thought and insight. Students who learn to distill and limit information to the most pertinent elements deserve the highest rewards. "Less is more." Can we find TRUTH hiding somewhere in the mountains of information?

Telling Questions Sort in Advance

The beauty of telling questions is their efficiency, their economy and their accuracy. They get the job done quickly and well.

Imagine that students must make a choice between three cities based upon a half dozen criteria such as CRIME, EMPLOYMENT, WEATHER, SHOPPING, ENTERTAINMENT, and PARKS. Rather than gather hundreds of pages about each of these criteria, they take the time to formulate 2-3 telling questions about each criterion. These are listed on a cluster diagram such as this one.


If fortunate enough to have software to support cluster diagraming, such as Inspiration, (http://www.engagingminds.com/inspiration/) students employ that tool to support their planning. They may also use a paint program or a word processor.

How many violent crimes in each city per 100,000 population?

How have the numbers changed since 1985? 1990?

These telling questions will guide the search and will shape the keyword searching.

The students turn to a powerful search engine like AltaVista (http://www.altavista.digital.com/) and employ Boolean Logic to zero in on their target . . .

"violent crime rate" AND Boston

Great information leaps to the top of a brief (25) list of hits. No mountain here. Just a few good facts!

Technology of All!

The secret to effective research with new electronic information sources is the use of powerful questioning strategies. In fact, questions may be one of the most powerful technologies invented by humans. Even though they require no batteries and need not be plugged into the wall, they are the tools which help us make up our minds, solve problems and make decisions.

The research on student questions is disheartening. Ron Hyman from Rutgers reported in 1980 that there were 38 teacher questions for every one student question in the typical American classroom. So long as powerful questioning determines the results of inquiry, there is little sense enhancing the supply of information for American classrooms unless we simultaneously equip students with a toolkit of questioning skills.


Hyman, R. (1980). Fielding Student Questions. Theory into Practice; 1, pp. 38-44.