How can questioning help us learn and understand difficult concepts?

Economics professor Robert H. Franks finds questioning is a key tool in learning that sticks

Robert H. FrankIn A More Beautiful Question, I talk about how questioning is central to learning, but also how curiosity and inquisitiveness are drummed out of many children over the years via our educational system. Fewer questions may make it easier on the teacher, but far less effective for the student’s long-term learning.

So I was very interested to read Professor Robert H. Frank’s real-life examples of this concept in action in his May 11 NYTimes essay, “How Can They Charge That? (And Other Questions).” 

Professor Frank, an economics professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, had been dismayed by a finding that

Six months after having completed a standard introductory economics course, students are no better able to answer questions about basic economic principles than others who have never even taken economics. In standard courses, hundreds of concepts — many of them embedded in complex equations and graphs — often seem to go by in a blur.”

So Professor Frank came up with a writing assignment for his students where he asked them to devise questions around real-life behavior the students had observed. The professor gives several examples of observational questions his students came up with. For example:

Why do tickets to popular Broadway shows command premium prices, while movie theaters charge the same price for popular films as for clunkers? Things in high demand generally command higher prices, so why not blockbuster films?”

A good question, eh? The plausible explanation the student came up with is good, too. (See it here in the article.)

“It’s fun to watch the learning process unfold”

At first the out-of-practice students have trouble formulating sufficiently interesting questions, but the professor reports that by the end of the semester they eagerly embraced the questioning methodology. “Between midterm and term’s end, their brains have somehow become rewired to see the world differently,” he says.

Professor Frank also reports that on the basis of emails with former students over the years he found that “once students discover how costs and benefits shape everyday experience, their mastery of economic principles doesn’t decay over time; it grows stronger.”

My takeaway from Professor Frank’s educational experiment is that if we can nurture or reignite the ability to pose beautiful questions, people can better grapple with and grasp difficult concepts and challenges—thus creating a highly effective, lifelong learning strategy.


To see more of Professor Frank’s many interesting articles, visit http://www.robert-h-frank.com/popularpress.html

Thanks to @IreneLevine for bringing this article to our attention.

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About the Author

Journalist and speaker Warren Berger realized that the majority of successful creatives and entrepreneurs he was interviewing over the years were great questioners. His wondering about "How can we all learn to do what they do?” led to this website and the writing of his latest book, A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts here.

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