Questioning the Questioning of Questions

Written by Jackie Delamatre

Recently, the use of questions in art museum teaching has been questioned. In their book, Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee wonder “why we ask questions at all.” They have observed too many instances of questions that merely stand in for the delivery of facts, questions that limit viewers’ responses, or questions aimed only at “getting the students to talk.”   They write:

“Even so-called open-ended questions always define a finite horizon of response that limits the range of answers that will make sense to both questioner and respondent” (100).

Are they right?

While they have written an eloquent, essential book that I am very grateful for, I do not agree with their premise that because some docents or educators ask terrible questions, questions in general are a flawed pedagogical tool. Every teaching method has unsatisfactory practitioners. That does not mean the teaching method itself is bad. More likely it means that some practitioners are not buying into the philosophical underpinnings of the methods, or, in some cases, that they don’t have enough experience or good mentorship.

I can assure you that many docents or educators could also botch Burnham and Kai-Kee’s described methods. Does that mean their methods are bad? Certainly not. I have been with Burnham for an experience with an artwork, and it was powerful. I don’t disagree that what she does works wonderfully for her audiences. However, I also don’t agree that all audiences can or will look for an hour at a painting without prompting through questioning. I have taught audiences for whom this works just fine, but over ten years of teaching literally thousands of tours at art museums, I believe that museum educators must not do away with open-ended, non-leading questions.

In Defense of Questions

Why not do away with questions?  Because some groups have never been to a museum before, or looked for longer than a few seconds at an artwork. Some groups have rarely been asked their opinion before. Some groups have not experienced learning as interpretative and dialogic instead of didactic. Some groups have had no practice listening to each other. Some groups are scared to death of sounding stupid. Some feel highly uncomfortable in the galleries. “We are the only people who look like us here,” a student once said to me on a tour at the Whitney Museum, and when she broke down in tears, so did others in the group and so did I.  Some groups don’t even want to travel to the area where the museum is. When I taught high school in the South Bronx, my students said they did not want to go on field trips to Manhattan. “Too many white people in Manhattan, Miss,” said one student, and I don’t think he was joking. Some groups are still thinking about the backpack they were forced to check in the lobby. Some are just marveling at the museum – a place entirely new to them. Some are hungry or wondering when they will be allowed to go to the bathroom. Perhaps some students (hard to believe for us art lovers) are simply not interested in art. (I don’t blame them. We all have affinities. I would probably not have been enthusiastic about a school field trip to a car mechanic unless ways to be engaged in the topic were modeled for me.)

For many groups, questions will help them move through fear, discomfort, distraction, or lack of experience or affinity. By asking questions, we model the rules of interpretative play that Burnham and Kai-Kee propose. “Look keenly…share your observations…ask questions… listen to and respect what others say…be patient” (130). We hope that they might internalize these modes of inquiry and use them to think about not just art but the visual culture we live with.

In my experience, questions are critical in modeling how to explore a work of art. When we ask, “What do you notice?” we model for students that their observations are important and meaningful. When we ask, “What more do you notice?” we model that their initial observations are not enough. When we ask, “Where do you see that?” we model that their observations are best grounded in the work. When we ask interpretative questions such as, “What can you guess about this place?” or “How would you describe this person?” we model that their hypotheses are valuable even without a higher degree in art history. When we ask, “What makes you say that?” we remind them to ground their interpretations in observations. When we offer curatorial interpretations or artists’ quotes and ask them what they think of these ideas, we model that the conversation around art in the galleries is still alive and far from complete. When we ask, “Do you agree or disagree?” (with curatorial or artists’ statements or with other students’ thoughts), prompting them to explain their answers, we model that debate and an openness to multiple interpretations are appropriate and they are capable of it. When we ask, “Do you like it? Why or why not?” we model that their opinions matter. When we ask about how art relates to their own lives, we model that what you see in a museum can have an impact beyond its walls. When we ask students to offer up their own questions about the artwork, we model how they can conduct their own conversations with an artwork – on their own or with a group.

Do Burnham and Kai-Kee really think that questions like these “define a finite horizon of response?” For every single one of these questions, I can imagine an unlimited array of responses. These are the kinds of questions that experienced lookers ask themselves about an artwork without prompting. But what of the groups with the aforementioned preoccupations or inexperience?  Our role as educators for every visitor – not just the experienced lookers – is to model these modes of inquiry. I love Burnham and Kai-Kee’s model for dialogical teaching. In their model, imagined as a four-sided diagram, or diamond, participants in a dialogue move between any of four roles:

  • The mover pushes the dialogue forward with statements or questions.
  • The follower supports the dialogue with evidence, encouragement, or just active listening.
  • The bystander stands back, views the dialogue from afar, perhaps metacognitively.
  • The opposer actively disagrees with another’s point of view. (87-89)

Many viewers would not naturally know how or be willing to take on these roles. Questions can help. When we ask questions, we model the role of the mover for students. When later in an experience (or even in the beginning of one), we ask them to raise their own questions about an artwork, we invite them to be movers. When we ask students to think about what others have said and express their agreement or disagreement we are asking them to be both bystanders and, possibly, opposers. We are modeling the role of listening to the whole of the conversation and stepping in when they have a different opinion or even if they want to agree or support as a follower.

Later in their discussion of this dialogical model, Burnham and Kai-Kee describe what I think of as the most exciting kind of question. If you’ll allow me an extended metaphor, the questions I have already described are the meat-and-potato questions – the questions to facilitate a sustained, filling experience with an artwork. But then there is the Boeuf Bourguignon of questions – the one that has been simmering so long it excites the palate upon contact. The educator has reflected on an artwork for days, weeks, even years, and has come back again and again to a question that she cannot answer, that she wants to hear as many thoughts on as possible. It is “a question that is real for [the teacher], a question she wants to share with the students, and whose answer she does not already know” (91).

In Search of the ‘Boeuf Bourguignon’ of Questions

Recently, I taught a couple sessions for adults at a Robert Motherwell painting at the RISD Museum.

Robert Motherwell, Ochre Still Life with Blue Stripe (1966).
Robert Motherwell, Ochre Still Life with Blue Stripe (1966).

I had the good fortune of being able to research the painting for months. I read Motherwell’s writings, asked a curator at the museum for background on the work, spoke to a conservator about it, and looked at it carefully for extended periods. I was even able to gather with educator colleagues in front of the painting and discuss it. During this latter session, a question came up that none of us could answer definitively. It stuck with me through all my research. I knew I wanted to share it with the participants in my session.

Motherwell was fascinated by collage. When he discovered it, he said, he took to it like a “duck to water.” He said the experience of making collage was like “making beautiful love for the first time.”   The painting I was planning to discuss, according to one curator, “could be read as a translation to another scale of one of his collages.” My colleagues, after seeing his collages, had been perplexed. The painting was not nearly as good as his collages, they agreed. Their question became: Why even make the painting? Why not stick with collage? Indeed, in Motherwell’s writings he describes getting more pleasure out of making collage: “I do feel more joyful with collage, less austere. A form of play. Which painting, in general, is not, for me, at least…” (Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Stephanie Terenzio). So the question stuck with me. Why even make paintings? I wanted to ask this question because after all my research and time looking at the artwork, I still found it fascinated me.

After a long, free-wheeling, open-ended discussion of the painting, I proposed the question to my first group.  There was silence. Uh-oh, I thought, maybe this question was only interesting to me. Maybe, like Burnham and Kai-Kee suggest, I had asked a question that limited “the range of answers that will make sense to both questioner and respondent.” Maybe I had asked a question unrelated to their experience of or interest in the artwork. But I sat with the silence for a few moments, and people began to speak up.

“Perhaps,” one said, “he wanted to make something bigger than collage would allow.”

“Perhaps,” said another, “he couldn’t make as much money from collages.”

“I think,” said yet another, “he could learn something about his collages by making the paintings.”

“I think he needed them for his legacy – to be considered important.”

We laughed about some of the answers, and there were plenty of perplexed looks as we sat with the question. It was another way into the painting. Yes, it was influenced by my own experiences with and interest in the work, but it was an open-ended, genuine, and satisfyingly riddling question and the range of answers took us places we hadn’t yet been in the conversation.

Sometimes no one answers questions like this, and I think that’s OK, too. These questions are modeling something that all questions should model, and I think these questions throw into sharp relief. They model that we are all learners, and we are learning together. We are asking questions because we are genuinely curious about their answers.

 About the Author

JACKIE DELAMATRE: jackie 3museum educator, currently teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and writes teacher curricula for the Guggenheim Museum, the International Center of Photography, and the Neuberger Museum of Art. Until this summer, she taught at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Guggenheim Museum for nearly a decade. She has coordinated research on the effects of looking at art on critical thinking skills, founded programs for teens as well as babies and their caregivers, and written for the Journal of Museum Education as well as several museum and museum education blogs, most recently for Museum Questions.  She holds a B.A. from Brown University and an M.F.A. from New York University in Fiction. She is at work on a novel. 


13 thoughts on “Questioning the Questioning of Questions”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I, too, was perplexed by the same chapter in the Rika Burnham and Eliot Kai-Kee book. I teach often with carefully-worded and open-ended questions to get the most out of our group discussions and conversations. I often find that docents are encouraged to ask more questions, but are not actually aware of different question types and how these can impact on group dynamics. Language too is a very powerful tool when using questions – just by using the conditional tense (using ‘could’ and ‘might’) we demonstrate that we are expecting multiple answers and musings.

  2. Great blog post. My wife and I had a thorough discussion on framing questions last night. She’s an urban high-school history teacher and sometimes finds that it’s necessary for her to frame questions that guide students to the type of answers she’s looking. Other times, open-ended questions with no powerful adjectives or guidance brings forth some of the purest and honest answers from her students.

    I have not read Burnham and Kai-Kee’s book but to do away with all questions seems a bit absurd. I’m sure they make a good argument. However, from a human-nature perspective, we ask ourselves questions all the time in our thinking, problem-solving, and even in observing art. Excluding questions from teaching art would not necessarily exclude the questions within someone’s mind.

  3. I don’t see it as an either/or question. When we frame it up that way we prevent ourselves from growing and learning. I don’t think Rika and Elliot see it that way either. What I take from it is to not default to a total questioning approach.
    In a recent study at the Portland Museum of Art (Maine) we invited visitors to ponder a work of art on their own and, in a stream-of consciousness style, tell us what they thought and felt about the work. Then we asked them what questions they had. Eventually we answered one or two of their questions and asked them what effect that information had on their overall engagement or appreciation of the piece. This study was designed to provide information for the interpretive team as they planned a new installation of the collections.
    The study reinforced the importance of listening and having a conversation – a back and forth – rather than a one-way Q&A that a total focus on asking visitors questions can become.
    Over the years I’ve found that one size never fits all. As an educator and a visitor studies researcher I want many tools in my tool belt so I can select the proper tools or strategies for each unique learning situation.

    1. Hello Marianna —

      I agree completely. In my post, I mentioned that I have taught with no questions and have found that to be effective as well – for certain groups. My argument with the chapter was that Burnham and Kai-Kee seemed to be arguing for moving away from questions in general – rather than adding another type of teaching to the toolbox as you suggest. In my experience, there are many types of groups that benefit greatly from the scaffolding that open-ended questions provide. I wanted to defend their use when used well as one type of tool for teaching. In fact, along the lines of what you have said, I have also argued recently for more diversity in our approaches to school tours (including one approach much like your study). See this post for more:

      Thank you for replying. I am very happy to have this comments section to clarify my views.


      1. As an addendum to my reply, I have recently become interested in questioning a different museum education orthodoxy than Burnham and Kai-Kee. I still believe in asking questions if we are conducting conversations in front of artworks (although as I said, I don’t think they are always necessary). However, I wonder whether the field has become too focused on these conversations (or dialogues) in front of artworks as our primary teaching tool. I believe there are many visitors who would benefit from different approaches. Introverts, for instance, might rather be given a prompt for experiencing an artwork on their own. For them, being asked to share their thoughts on an artwork without this time alone might feel intimidating and even stressful. Their views could get pushed to the side as the more extroverted participants control the flow of the conversation. Visitors with limited English might rather draw a response to an artwork and share them with a group (or not). As I have written elsewhere, I also think this style of dialogical teaching means we may not be giving visitors the best tools to experience the museum when they return on their own (if they return). These are very basic examples, but my point is that I would like to see some posts, chapters, or articles questioning why most tours are focused on these conversations and whether we should consider diversifying our methods for the sake of our diverse visitors – coming to us with so many learning styles, backgrounds, and goals for visits.

  4. Very good post, by Jackie i shall reply with an explanation of some (sic)of my methods, i teach (and Lecture) adult students in an FINE ART College where the emphasis is on CONTEXT this ties history with the social ,political era in which a piece was made and includes technical (making) questions about the works construction (technique ,materials etc)
    As well as my student’s practical Painting ,Drawing ,Sculpture studio teacher, i also have taught Printmaking,and have an personal interest in Photo and use it in coming to my own,(professional) work. I also lecture in Arts in Context as its called, i typically arrange with Museums for my students to bring their Backpacks with appropriate art materials to make practical notes on individual technique as well as style and theoretical concerns of the Artist/s, i give a brief “talk no more than 15 mins (sometimes in relation to context, then proceed to view the Show, I ask no questions and discourage students from listenind to electro “guides” or museum staff talks, i do encourage them to return and take advantage of museum provided resource opportunities. at the end of a tour i ask the students if they want any clarification (of issues that may have arisen in seeing the show) we then go back to college , at the end of semester the Art (context)history theory students must produce 5 professional reviews 200 words minimum and two 1000 word review pieces with appropriate referencing . i fi encourage drafts for beginners, as a learning intro to professional writing and presenting illustrated talks ( one per Semester at the end of semester) with appropriate run timing and notes
    i liaise with museum staff very closely and hopefully allow my students to get used to and make their own contacts with museum Ed staff, this helps the” fish out of water” feeling of students sometimes have. see Jackie’s article; I also introduce students to contemporary artists and arrange studio visits, so that buy graduation students whether they become theoretical practitioners or practising artists they feel part of the biz
    the point of all this (above) is to forge viatal link between practitioners and the museum in all it’s aspects. YMHS Ian

  5. As a classroom teacher I can say that much of what we are fostering is similar. I use questioning, like Jackie Delamatre, in order to guide my students toward active reading, listening and looking habits. At the same time, I share my own curiosities and open my own lines if inquiry in order to be truly present as a listener and position myself as a mutual learner. In reading this article, I am reminded that questioning is not only about developing individual capacities but that it is also about bringing people together around works of art in oder to consider the world we share. Thank you Mike and Jackie!

  6. Thank you Jackie for raising the question of questioning… Rika was a colleague of mine during both of our tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I witnessed the power of a her empirical approach and it is compelling for some audiences, some of the time. As an educator in higher education about museum teaching I found myself discussing and questioning with my students this idea of a spectrum of approaches. They were encouraged to find that as teachers, good teachers, they will ultimately cross that array of tools and techniques in their careers and should always question good pedagogy. I am a firm believer, like Jackie, that the pedagogical tools are only as good as how the teacher crafts using them and very much in relation to the audience/students on any given day. I think this has become a philosophical question at the root of art museum education mission. If the institutions were built to preserve, collect, curate and educate (on art historical fact) than some part of museum education must nod to that in some authentic way while marrying the facilitation of interpretation and experience for experience sake. Otherwise, it’s a dog and pony show all the time. There is merit in practicing and being versed within the balance of pedagogical methods and a good educator, having great mentorship as Jackie points out, knows when and how to facilitate dialogue and experience across that spectrum. Thank you for getting us to think analytically and open up a dialogue about it.

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