Mural on a school wall painted by students
Our “Reading Changes” project is entering a phase of deeper analysis of the conversations we had with the students about their reading practices and the ways in which they constructed meaning from the three texts we read. The re-reading of the transcripts has led me to reflect about the way in which we ask questions when we work on response to reading and about the questions themselves. We all know the value of asking good questions and although in what follows I will refer mainly to the role that questions play in research, I think that this reflection can be relevant to teachers, librarians, parents and anyone else who ‘mediates’ between children, young people and books.
Since the time of Socrates philosophers have employed questions as a basis for stimulating free and critical thought and, even today, ‘Philosophy for Children’ is an approach that centres on a community of enquiry where, among other things, participants learn how to formulate good questions. Asking questions has many functions: in the case of research it has to do with the core query that launches the project and with obtaining information from participants; in the case of pedagogy, it has to do (or it should have to do!) with stimulating reasoning and reflection. An ethical enquiry in an educational context therefore has to consider the impact of the research in terms of pedagogy and this is why our ‘Reading Changes’ project was based on the idea of workshops where collective dialogue, rather than formal interviews, were encouraged as well as the use of questions (and visual strategies) that had an educational potential. It may seem obvious but it is easy to take for granted the fact that in traditional educational contexts it is the adult who has the ‘right’ to ask questions and the child or adolescent, the ‘obligation’ to respond – and in a certain way.
In research, this imbalance of power also exists, not only because researchers are adults working with the permission of the relevant authorities but also because they normally have a certain academic level and are backed up by a university. Young people may feel obliged to respond to questions and, perhaps, to answer what they think the researcher wants to hear. On the contrary, they might refuse to say what they really think, refuse to participate or remain silent as a form of resisting that power and hierarchy. Any teacher or mediator will recognize this situation, indeed, any parent of an adolescent will too! If we add to this situation the impact of traditional didactic methods which assume there is a “truth” to be discovered through questioning and that there is a “correct” answer or a “proper” response, the resulting context can discourage participants to share the information we are looking for and even less to share their thoughts and ideas. This is why it is important not only to prepare the space but also the questions that will in some way compensate for that imbalance of power and create, within all the limitations, a dialogic situation that is more democratic and authentic.
Many books have been written about conducting ethical qualitative research which takes into account the voices of the participants and aims for more participatory methods. Many books have also been written about how to formulate questions, either for interviews o. When a formal interview is conducted for an empirical, quantitative project, questions are normally constructed with little flexibility and to be asked in a particular order. In qualitative research, questions are also carefully formulated but there is more flexibility. However, when the research is about inviting a child or adolescent to talk about a literary text (whether it is a picturebook, a novel or poetry), the questions need to be even more fluid given that we are trying to enquire about a process that is not only cognitive but very personal (Morag Styles and I wrote about this in 2003 in our book on research on response to picturebooks and have just completed a new version of the book in which we emphasize this particular point because we have seen so many other research projects, some by our own Master’s and PhD students, that have proved just how important it is to ask good questions). If closed and objective questions are asked, as they tend to be in the classroom, we will not be able to learn much about a process that is so unique and intimate as the act of reading.
As well as doing our best to create a welcoming space for the students who participated in our workshops (in a psychological rather than a physical sense given the limits we had), we created questions that we hoped would stimulate their interest in the project itself and through which we could integrate a more complete picture of their acts of reading. For example, we asked if they thought that books and reading were still important in the digital world, how new technology had affected their practices and preferences or what they would suggest to encourage reading among their peers. We also asked them, among other things, what role image played in comparison to words in the texts we read, about empathy, and about ambiguous endings and characters.
There is no space here to write about their responses but I do want to mention five points about asking questions which came up repeatedly and which have taught me much about creating a conversational space for research. First, I have learned that it is important to tolerate the silence that can follow a question. It is very hard to avoid trying to fill these silences given that they sometimes seem endless but if we remind ourselves that we all need time to order our thoughts before answering a question, we realize we have to be patient. Second, we must really allow participants’ voices to be heard. Given that the book and the theme of the conversation is exciting to us, it is easy to allow ourselves to talk too much and even answer our own questions. Third, unless there is a specific pedagogic intention in the research, we must avoid the impulse to “teach” given that, on one hand, this reasserts hierarchies and on other, they will learn enough from reading and the conversation with others. Fourth, it is important to pay attention to the questions that the participants ask, even when they seem irrelevant or misguided; there will be a rationale behind them although we may not see it immediately. Finally, I’ve learned that good questions lead young people to create their own good questions and it is precisely at the moment of asking their questions when a real dialogue begins and the balance of power inclines a bit more towards equilibrium.