Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Ask Better Questions

I collect good questions. I've gotten them from StoryCorps, Teri Gross, Deborah Solomon, creative writing exercises, and colleagues, and interview subjects themselves.

One of my favorite parts of the job I do is to "discover" a school's* story. While focus groups with students, teachers, alumni, and parents are de rigeur in my line of work that doesn't mean all focus groups are created equal. To tell a school's story i.e. market a school in a non-generic way you have to ask questions that will get past the similarities between schools. You have to ask questions that will reveal what is compelling about that particular school's programs and culture.

That means asking questions I don't already know the answers to. If I ask, "What makes this school special?" Nine times out of ten, a student will say "the people," which gets me nowhere. But if I ask, "What impresses you about this school?" the answers are not only more specific to the school but are often different for each of the individuals in the focus group.

I have some tried and true questions. My favorite is asking faculty and school leaders, "Where do this school's ambiguities lie?" It always gives me gold in terms of revealing an institution's particular culture and any communication challenges that exist. But I'm also on the look out for new questions.

When I saw Seth Godin's "FiveTips for Better Online Surveys," I immediately wondered if they applied to in-person interviews and focus groups as well. Indeed, they do. "Make the questions entertaining . . .Boring surveys deserve the boring results they generate" is a good example. You want to ask questions that are intriguing and fun. "If this school didn't exist, would it need to be founded today?" falls under the intriguing category for most teachers and school leaders. "What's your favorite place on campus and at what time of day?" always brings a smile to students' and teachers' faces.

One of my all-time favorite questions came from an article I read about Anna Deavere Smith helping emergency room doctors ask better questions of incoming patients. The question was simply, "What happened to you?" I don't ask it just like that, but that question underlies many of the questions I do ask. If I can get a student to tell me what happened to them (what did they learn about themselves and about the world, who did they meet, how have they changed and why is that meaningful) at a particular school, I'm on my way. After all "what happened" is the plot in any good story.

*In this blog "school" refers to independent schools, colleges, and universities.

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