We read this blog ‘Closed Question Quizzing, Unfashionable Yet Effective‘ by Andy Tharby the other day. The virtues of closed questioning are well known to The Philosophy Foundation as they are central to our philosophical questioning approach, so we wanted to share this extract taken from a chapter entitled ‘If it, Anchor it, Open it up: A closed, guided questioning technique‘ that Peter Worley has written for the forthcoming book The Socratic Handbook ed. Michael Noah Weiss, LIT Verlag, 2015. Some of these ideas were first written about in The Question X published in Creative Teaching and Learning and available here: The Question X. In this blog Peter has developed some of the ideas written about in The Question X.
Plato’s Socrates asks many closed questions – questions that elicit a one-word or short answer such as ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘Paris’. Dip in to any of the dialogues and you will very likely witness an exchange between Socrates and an interlocutor that is made up of closed questions and single-word/phrase answers such as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘absolutely’, ‘without doubt’ and so on. However, the well-known Socratic Question – of the form ‘What is X?’ (e.g. ‘What is Beauty?’) – is an open question.
When I ask those I train which of the two types of question they should favour during an enquiry almost invariably they will say, ‘Open questions’. When I ask them ‘why?’ they say something along the following lines: ‘They invite the children to say more than a closed question does and closed questions only elicit one-word answers.’
Before I explain my recommendation of which question-type to favour I would like to make a distinction between two kinds of open/closed question: 1) a grammatically open/closed question and 2) a conceptually open/closed question. So, ‘Do you like jam?’ is both grammatically and conceptually closed because the answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and once it has been answered there is nothing more to explore; there is no further contestability. Even if you ask ‘why?’ the answer is likely to be no more enlightening than, ‘because I do,’ or words to that effect. A question such as ‘Is the mind the same as the brain?’ is grammatically closed in that the answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but conceptually open in that any answer given will remain contestable – there’s still plenty more to explore and say on the matter.
With this distinction in mind I recommend that the best question type to favour during an enquiry is the closed question – just as Socrates does – even though one is exploring an open topic such as ‘What is the mind?’ Having said that, there are some qualifications I will add that I think improve on the Socratic way of using closed questions that appeals to another Socratic principle – that of eliciting ideas/knowledge from the person that is questioned (see Plato’s Meno for more on this).
The reason why we use (and should use) closed questions is because they are incredibly focused and specific. The virtue of this is that closed questions keep the line of inquiry sequential and logical, something that I claim is essential in a philosophical enquiry. We might represent the shape of a closed question as follows:
But, many will point out, they are too focused so that they bring conversations to an end, or, as we see with Socrates, if the conversation doesn’t dry up completely then the questioner has to do a great of the work to allow the conversation to continue, possibly in truth only conducting a conversation with themselves, such as the following very plausible questioning situation:
(Context: The story of Sindbad and The Valley of The Diamonds [available for free download on Guardian Teacher Network] has been told [see Once Upon an If] in which Sindbad is trapped in a valley filled with diamonds on an island inhabited only by snakes of all sizes. At one point Sindbad is so filled with despair that he considers allowing a giant snake that has been sniffing around his tree at night to find him and eat him.)
FAC: Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?
FAC: Okay, thank you. Anyone else got anything to say? Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?
Here is a classic case of the problem of closed questions. If the facilitator carries on in this way the discussion, we might very well imagine, will soon dry up.
So instead, the facilitator could have made use of an open question. This is what most people think they should do. Let’s try a few out:
- Why should Sindbad not have let the snake eat him?
- What do you think Sindbad should do?
- What’s going to happen next, do you think?
But none of these are satisfactory. The first is a classic example of a leading question: it has assumed that it is wrong for Sindbad to let the snake eat him when this is surely one of – if not the – central issue around which the debate will hang. The second is too open and is in danger of digressions that move away from the ethical problem that faces the main character of the story; the issue the teacher is likely to want the students to consider. (I’m especially thinking of practical recommendations such as what he should do to escape from the island or to protect himself and so on). And the third question is much more concerned with the narrative than the ethical problem. A discussion about the ethical problem may follow from these questions, but it is likely to move off track. We might describe the shape of an open question like this:
Now, I’d like to return to the closed question approach that I dismissed earlier. Let’s rewind:
FAC: Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?
All the facilitator need do here is say ‘Why?’ to solve the problem of the closed question. It is as simple as that; the question simply needs to be opened up. The questioner now has the best of both worlds: focus and specificity from closed questions and the invitation to say more that you get from open questions. This helps discussions flow, it helps discussions to continue developing whilst remaining structured and disciplined without being restrictive. The shape of this style of questioning can be represented as an X (The Question X), visually capturing the shape and character of both styles of questioning:
However, I need to say something about ‘the why question’ here. It is often suggested that ‘why?’ is an aggressive question that puts a student ‘on the spot’ making him or her feel that there must be an answer and that they will be considered stupid if they don’t have one and so on. But we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water; we must not dispense with ‘Why?’ This is even more the case in discussions that are philosophical in nature; justification is so central to philosophy that philosopher’s – or those engaged in philosophical discussions – cannot do without it. But I do agree that we need to deal with the problem of ‘why?’s possible aggression. As long as facilitators are careful about how they use the question ‘Why?’ then we can – and should – continue to use it. So instead of ‘why?’, pure and simple, I recommend the following expressions of the ‘why?’ question, at least until a class is comfortable enough to deal with a straight ‘Why?’:
- ‘Would you like to tell me the reasons you have for that?’
- ‘Would you like to tell me why?’
- ‘Would you like to say why?’
The key point here is that you should invite the students so that they know that they don’t have to answer until they are comfortable doing so. I would argue that any philosophical discussion implicitly demands reasons, because the nature of philosophy contains a demand for justification, but a facilitator does not need to make the demand explicit. One should also make sure that one’s tone is neutral so that ‘Why?’ doesn’t sound like a weapon.
One should be aware that ‘why?’ does not only serve a justificatory (reason) role. ‘Why?’ can also be explanatory (causal) or even provide an account of motivation (purpose). The context usually makes it clear which kind of response (reason, cause or purpose) is required but some further questioning or clarification may sometimes be helpful to a student. Part of the reason for engaging in philosophical discussions, especially if the aim is educational, is to give the student practice is selecting what kind of response they need to give, as determined by the context. This is essential in order for a thinker to develop his or her autonomous reasoning.
So, to return to the main discussion, ‘Why?’ is just one way in which a questioner can ‘open up’ a closed question. I have identified the following main ways in which a question can be opened up. They are:
- Justification (E.g. ‘Would you like to say why?’)
- Clarification (E.g. ‘Could you tell me what you mean by…?’)
- Elicitation (E.g. ‘Can you say more about…?’)
- Exemplification/counter-exemplification (E.g. ‘Can you give an example(s) of…?’/ ‘Can anyone think of an example where not X?’)
- Explanation (E.g. ‘Can you explain how?’)
- Implication/entailment (E.g. ‘What does that tell us about…?’)
- Conditions (E.g. ‘What do you need for…?’)
I tend to find that during philosophical discussions number 5 (Explanation, or the ‘how’ question) is needed less often than the other four but, of course, if using the opening up strategy in science, for instance, asking for explanation will be very important if not unavoidable. When using clarification questions during philosophical enquiries very often it is important to say ‘you’ as in: ‘Could you tell me what you mean by X?’ because it is less important what the term X means and more important that we know what the speaker intends to use the term for. In other words, we are after their meaning and not the meaning. Of course, there will be situations where the general meaning is also needed but in my experience it is not usually necessary in philosophical discussions.
Ending note: of course, some students/clients open themselves up:
FAC: Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?
CHILD: No because…
And under these circumstances closed questions don’t offer any problems, but the strategy I’ve described above is useful for those shy, unsure students, or those lacking in confidence you find silenced simply by the grammar of a closed question. After a while, and particularly with groups I’ve been working with for some time, I open up with simple prompts like ‘…because…?’ or ‘Go on…’ after an answer while I circle my hands to indicate that they continue in whatever capacity they see fit, if at all. Sometimes I simply motion with my hands ‘to go on’ saying nothing at all.
I have found that there is another good reason to use closed questions: they elicit intuitions. This is important in a counter-intuitive way, or, ‘the first rule of philosophy club is don’t think about it!’ I have said elsewhere that the philosophical process has the following structure:
- Reflect (‘What is X?’)
- Reason (‘I think X is/is not … because…)
- Re-evaluate (‘But is that right? Because…)
And now I would like to add another R to the list that precedes them all: 0) Respond. That is to say that the philosophical process begins with intuitions – notions we have about something before we have gone through a reasoning process. A philosophical problem arises when there is conflict between or within our intuitions. For instance, ‘I think that the ship before me is the same ship because common sense tells me it is but I also think that it is not the same ship because it has changed over time,’ (see The Ship of Theseus in The If Machine) might be an example of a starting intuition that contains conflict: it is both the same ship and not the same ship. The conflict lies in the fact that there appears to be a contradiction (P and not P). Necessarily, one must have something to reflect on, to reason and re-evaluate about, so a response to some kind of cognitive conflict is essential to begin the philosophical process. There needs to be a puzzle.
Closed questions prompt a response in the manner of a reflex action. Open questions are quite the opposite and it may be that something like a similar misconception about how philosophy works is at the root of why people tend to think that open questions are to be preferred when philosophizing or enquiring into something: ‘open questions require me to think so they must be better for thinking’. But, for the reasons given above, it is sometimes – I would argue: often – quite the opposite. Here’s a typical exchange:
FAC: So, [turning to a child who has not yet spoken] would you like to say anything? [Child shrugs shoulders to indicate something like ‘No,’ or ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I’ve got nothing to say.’]
FAC: That’s okay. [Pause] Do you think the prisoner is free?
FAC: Would you like to say why?
CHILD: [After a while of some thought…] Because he can’t go out of the prison even if he wants to.
Sometimes, especially when the anchoring technique is used in this way, and also especially if the response is an intuitive one and not a reasoned response, then the child may have nothing more to say. At least they now have an intuition so they have something to start with, in this case, ‘No, he is not free’. Conflicts that come out of intuitions may not arise until other intuitions (from other speakers) are voiced. Sometimes, as with the ‘ship’ example above, conflicts arise out of a single intuition from a single person and other times they lie between intuitions had by different people.
 To many this will seem too obvious to mention but it is worth pointing out that it is one of the most commonly overlooked moves that we, at The Philosophy Foundation, notice when we conduct observations of teachers and graduates training to run philosophical enquiries.
 In his book Provocations Philosophy Foundation specialist David Birch endorses our use of closed questions in enquiry when he says, ‘…all that a closed question is asking of the pupil is whether they accept or reject something, whether they swallow or spit. It is appealing to taste rather than reason.’ (See Provocations: Philosophy For Secondary Schools by David Birch, page 6.) In this section I try to explain in more detail why philosophy begins with tasting.
 This reminds me of the Bridge of Death scene in the Monty Python film The Holy Grail in which one of the characters is asked by the riddle setter ‘What is your favourite colour?’ The character is caught off-guard and says, ‘Blue. No, red!’ and is then thrown into the chasm below for failing to answer one of the three questions he had to answer in order to be able to pass. In this example the closed question prompted a reflex response such that he got his favourite colour wrong – something one would have thought you can’t get wrong!