For much of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark skulks around Elsinore in a cloud of melancholy, questioning everything: whether he would be better off dead or alive, whether the ghost of his dead father really is the ghost of his dead father, and what, if anything, will happen to him when he shuffles of this ‘mortal coil’. These are big questions – some of the biggest we ask as human beings – so it’s unsurprising that despite its four-hour running time, the play fails to provide any definitive answers.
Such is the nature of drama, of course: to pose imponderables about existence, to set tensions and ambiguities in place that live on long after the curtain has fallen and the audience has departed. It’s a medium the genius of Shakespeare clearly understood: that the question is often far more revealing than the answer. His plays constantly question existence and show an appreciation for the absurdity of the human condition long before Camus wrote about the ‘fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe.’
Whilst there are a number of similarities between the theatre and the classroom – the performance, audience unpredictability and uncomfortable chairs – there is ultimately a world of difference between the questions posed by a playwright through the characters on a stage and the questions asked of students by a teacher in a lesson. The dramatist enquires away from the known order of things in search of new insight, whilst in the main the teacher starts from certainty to help construct that understanding for others – to teach the body of scientific and artistic thought that has been accumulated over time.
I have already written about how I used to waste lots of time asking silly questions. My orientation was too often skewed the wrong way; my questions tended to lean more towards the inductive like those of the artist, rather than deductive like those of the teacher. Too much speculation – why questions instead of what questions, or how questions instead of who or where questions. Too much; too soon. I was putting novice students in the difficult position of trying to grapple with ideas and methods that even Hamlet would have struggled to disentangle.
Andy Tharby has got the right idea when he argues we should focus more agreed interpretations first, as opposed to getting secondary school students to offer insights and judgements they are often ill equipped to make. I’m not advocating against developing thoughtful, enquiring minds; actually, quite the opposite. By focusing questions on building students’ understanding of what is already known (in this case about a text), it is more likely that in time, they will know enough to be able to ask about ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’ themselves.
Emphasising the deductive has improved my questioning and, in turn, my practice. I don’t mean in the showy sense where style is valued over substance, where the emphasis is on the moves of the teacher, not the content the question is trying to get at. I mean in terms of precision. Carefully worded questions help isolate variables for students so they can see what gets threaded together to form the complexities of plot, character and theme, and the intricacies of rhythm, rhyme and staging. Well-honed questions reveal gaps in understanding, as well as providing the path towards achieving it.
All this takes time, which means other things have to go – Powerpoint presentations, arty handouts, copious marking. All this becomes untenable. But that’s ok, because in the main, the questions are the lesson. The process also sharpens the subject knowledge, exposing strengths as well as weaknesses. When I’m struggling to phrase a question about Hamlet, Ophelia or Polonius, I realise I am probably not clear enough in my own mind about what specific aspect of their character I want to tease out. I read the passage again, perhaps around it too, until I know and then I have focus.
Almost all my lessons now consist of the text, a pen and a notebook, with all my scripted questions marked out for me in advance. I don’t always ask all of them, and they are still not as good as I would like them to be, but I think they make my lessons much more purposeful. There’s definitively still space to explore and, because that space has been created by the efficiency and precision of the questions and the speculations are stronger because they rest on a firmer base.
As Hamlet never said, ‘The question’s the thing that develops their understanding.’