School & District Management Opinion

Why Successful Leaders Create Space for Questions

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 15, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Instructional leadership includes what is taught, how teaching and learning takes place and answers the question ‘How do we know what is learned?’. There are big issues confronting students who will live and hopefully prosper and be happy in this next quarter of this century. Where do we engage one another, professionally, in conversations about their need to be prepared to survive in a civilization threatened by ecosystem collapse, rising sea levels and the resulting geo-political turmoil, armed conflict and the increasing polarization of ideological orientations, and humanity’s seemingly insatiable appetite for stuff? Where does that responsibility lie? It is collectively ours. Simultaneously, distractions, major and minor ones, pull attention away and compete for our best thinking, our reflection time and our purpose. It is the responsibility of the leaders to keep the system and those working in it focused, daily, on what our work actually is.

Making Room for Questions
It takes both courage and care to clear desks and minds and make room for the important discussions that belong along side those about learning subject material. We now know that on Mars, the planet we previously learned was dry and desolate, liquid water has been found. Pluto, the smallest planet and most distant from the sun, lost its planet status. Now, scientists are discovering potential new planets. Although there are some absolutes, science teaches us that absolutes may simply exist as our own limited capacities for investigation. It is similar in the social sciences. Boundaries and names of countries change. Hundreds of new words are added annually to dictionaries, words like ‘humblebrag’ and ‘adorbs’ or ‘vape’ are included while others become archaic. Rules of grammar become new and our words themselves are influenced by the use of social media.

We will continue to teach facts but this fast changing world might demand we ask ourselves if the definition of fact itself will morph over time. Are they ‘what we know now’ statements? What are the questions that accompany the decisions made every day and might make the answers more long lived? No matter flipping classrooms or faculty meetings, lengthening time on task or adding a period to a day, adding a course (subject) to the curriculum, or enacting safety drills, how are we balancing what we know as fact and the capacity to hold questions and understanding there is much we don’t know? How are we honoring the need for knowledge and skills while broadening student focus, engaging with large concepts and considering what is on the fringe? How do we gently locate facts as a solid place for students to stand without them becoming stuck there?

Questions, good questions, and listening , good listening are the keys to better teaching and learning. Young children arrive full of questions. “Why?”, they ask. Parents and teachers answer this question over and over every day. But, how well do our answers develop those questioning capacities? The same goes for leaders. Has your capacity to consider “Why?” been quashed? How do you handle that question when it comes up in a faculty meeting or on a call with a parent or from a senior student postured in your office, proudly, with 12 years of school success behind her?

There are two extremely powerful reasons to give questions space in a leader’s process. One is the leader has to hold the question “Is the manner in which learning takes place in our school/district environment helping students make sense of the world they are currently living in...and for their futures?” This is a vision/rudder question. The question, brought to each decision both teaches others the good habit of asking the question, and refocuses the solutions on what’s important. The other is when an open and honest question is asked, one to which the questioner truly does not hold the answer, those asked to answer share their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings more fully. It is the way leaders acquire information and build trust if they listen well. It doesn’t call for their positional authority to come into play but rather extends invitation for another perspective to be expressed. It requires sincere interest from the leader. It is a revealing and inclusive process in which the community involved becomes part of the solution and is fueled by the genuine invitation.

We are no longer at the threshold of the 21st century. It is running us over with its exciting opportunities and accelerated speed. If we do not capture the moment and create the learning environments students truly need, we will have failed. The same structures and methods of the past can inspire us but not constrain us. We advocate, as did Nietzche, Voltaire, and Lévi-Strauss, that questions will lead the way.

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.- Friedrich Nietzsche

Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers. - Voltaire

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.
- Claude Lévi-Strauss

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.