Inquiry or Inquisition? Hooray for Monday

September 20, 2021

By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching

Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students. 

As teachers, we spend a lot of time learning how to ask good questions, how to craft those just-right words that will spark learning and meaningful connection. Some of our questions are intended to deepen student understanding of academic content; some are intended to deepen our own understanding of our students. When we ask good questions, we push learning forward. As we probe, however, we may find ourselves, if we are not careful, navigating a narrow path between inquiry, which opens doors to learning, and inquisition, which shuts down learning, and people.

Inquiry means genuine curiosity about the other person – who they are, what they’re thinking about, working on, or struggling with. Inquisition looks to reinforce assumption (What’s going on here? uttered in a demanding tone sends the message I know you’re up to no good, and I’m looking for proof!)

Inquisition can be accidental. Sometimes it’s the result of a genuine attempt at inquiry gone wrong. What are you doing? for instance, spoken with curiosity and kindness, can be a true inquiry into what a child is engaged in, perhaps how they decided to try to solve a math problem, what they chose to focus on for a science project, or even which book they have chosen to read during class reading time. However, the same words in a different tone can be an accusation – picture hearing What are you doing? as you reach your hand into a cookie jar.

There are lots of questions that can take the form of an inquiry or an inquisition, based on the tone and context in which we ask them. Those include:

  • What are you doing?
  • What’s going on here?
  • Where were you yesterday?
  • How did you get that answer?
  • Why did you choose this seat?
  • Where is your mask?
  • Are you having a bad day?

 The list could go on and on… feel free to add your own questions.

School leaders, teachers, and parents – try this with your colleagues: Team up and create two scenarios for each of the above questions. In the first scenario, use the question as an inquiry and, in the second, use the exact same words as an inquisition. How did you get that answer? – for instance – would feel very different when spoken by a teacher who’s supporting a child in puzzling through a math problem than it would from a teacher who thinks he’s witnessed a student cheating on a test.

Tone and context matter a lot. It’s worth being intentional about both.

Words matter too. The first few words of a question, in particular, can point toward inquiry or inquisition. How come you always… or Do you seriously think…, for instance, tend to push the interaction quickly toward inquisition.

Here’s a list of question starters that lead toward inquiry instead:

  • Can you tell me more about…
  • How did you decide to…
  • What do you think you might…
  • How do you feel about…
  • Where do you think…
  • What might be the best way to…
  • When would be a good time to…

The way we start a question, the context, and the tone with which we ask it all matter. Those things determine whether we and our students find ourselves immersed in inquiry or cornered in an inquisition.

Inquiry stems from a place of genuine curiosity. And curiosity is a sign of respect.

Next week’s post will look deeper into the connection between curiosity and respect.

Until then, wishing you and your students a week filled with joyful inquiry.

September Inspired Teaching Institute

Teachers can’t control what happens between the time students wake up and when they arrive at school but they have a lot of control over what happens when students cross the classroom threshold. Participants in this fast-paced, idea-rich Institute will learn 20 different strategies for starting the school day!