You know how they say don’t answer a question with a question. It’s sometimes good advice. Along the lines of don’t use a word to define that word.
Here in education, however, the inverse may be true. When someone asks a question, the best answer is often another question, or three.
That’s not only because asking good questions is key to getting to good answers. It’s also because, in broad strokes, America’s education system is sprawling and diverse while most of the questions turn on specifics and particulars. The issues tend to be blunt force, but the answers require nuance and texture.
For example, when we talk about standardized testing you often hear the debate framed as for or against or good or bad or more or less. In fact, if someone asks about standardized testing the key questions are, what kind of test? What age level? For what purpose? High stakes for who, adults or kids?
Policy around transgender athletes. The debate is quick to yes or no. But the actual questions that matter are what age, what level of competition, what specific sports?
We talk a lot about whether big funding streams work? When the questions should be about what specific intervention(s)? For which students? Under what conditions? That question bedevils the ed tech industry and seems likely to be an issue with AI as well.
With today’s debates about censorship and talk of – and actual – book banning questions about what age group, what book, for what reason, and in what setting, for instance classroom library versus school library versus community library, are key to sorting out various claims and counterclaims. And it’s worth asking, is this a new issue (and some are the past few years) or a long running debate with a new culture war veneer or click-seeking take on it.
Of course, the evergreen – is college worth it? When the questions are for who, what schools, what program or course of study, at what cost? (Look for more on that from Bellwether later this week).
Other perennial favorites include, does school choice “work”? When the actual questions are what kind of choice schemes (publicly controlled choice, charter, private, tax credits, ESAs), with what rules or regulations, for what students? And work how? Grades? Graduation? College or post-secondary going? Parent satisfaction?
Or does money matter? That’s another one everyone can’t get enough of even though the devil is in the details.
Performance pay as a binary “yes” or “no” or does it work or not, obscures all the permutations of those polices. School segregation is often taken about in broad terms that ignore local context and variance.
You get the idea.
We’ve talked in the past about the definitional confusion problem, and that’s a part of this. Just simply asking what exactly are we talking about here and being specific matters.
And some of it is sloppiness around base rates. Is what we’re seeing really a change, or is it just being noticed (or reported on) now? And category errors, not asking if things being discussed are really the same?
But asking, and answering, good questions in education is also about some more sector specific follow-on questions like, again, what works under what circumstances and for what students? Or is this an outlier or edge case or something we see a lot around the sector – with more than 100,000 schools, across 50 states and 13,000 school districts you can find an example to prove almost anything.
We should not let the education debate turn into some exercise in nihilism or relativism where the answer to every question is just more questions. There is too much evasion now, and used a certain way questions can be a deflection. And there are actors who use this strategy in order to retain power – it’s all so unknowable, so many questions, just trust us.
Good questions can help punch through bad faith obfuscation (and preference falsification) and can separate sheep from goats on hard issues. Not everyone questioning standardized tests or accountability policy is an apologist for poor school performance or achievement gaps. People concerned about fairness in women’s sports are not all axiomatically transphobes or bigots. Not everyone skeptical of performance pay is a hack. And not everyone raising questions about appropriate content in schools is censorious or unsophisticated. But you won’t know if you don’t ask.
Especially in this hopped up time becoming better at the follow up questions might elevate the conversation some and be the kind of thing that lowers the temperature some. A question I ask a lot that might apply here is, if everyone starts asking more questions, then what’s the worst that can happen?