Are questions more powerful than answers?
Recently, I have been organizing playlists to share more of the media in my growing video library. The first one is called “It’s Emotional” (see the videos playlist page) simply because many of the young people I engage with, talk passionately about the media they show me. Actually when I think about it, to start a conversation about their media, all I’ve ever needed to ask is: “what are you looking at?” Asking questions and then following with more questions can yield a tender contact that feels visceral. It creates a bond.
But even though I know that gently probing a young person’s media can be a key to all kinds of important conversations, I don’t always manage it. Time, pressure, schedules, exhaustion, etc. drive me into transactional modes of communication and questions vanish. I pilot into action mode. I problem solve. I find answers. And then the moment is gone and the opportunity slips by.
One afternoon, I was talking with my son and Jamal, one of his friends. Jamal made a comment that struck me: “Teachers don’t know us (meaning students in his and my son’s class). If they asked to look at my Instagram feed, they would learn a lot about me.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and placed it in front of me, screen side up on the table. I looked down and saw news reports of racial violence and police brutality. As I scrolled through the stories, I was struck: this was exactly one of those moments. It was a chance to ask questions and learn more about Jamal’s experience. And also to learn more about my son.
I wondered what this kind of conversation would have felt like for their teachers in a state run school with overflowing classrooms and students from very diverse cultural & socioeconomic backgrounds. Could they afford to allow the children’s lives into that space? Could a standardized school system, with its institutional hierarchy, transactional efficiency and focus on testing metrics, cope with what the children brought in? Would the content of their social media feeds be too challenging? And that got me thinking: but then, in what space can young people have painful, raw conversations with adults about the world they are growing up in? And if a young person wasn’t lucky enough to be able to speak safely and openly at home – then where else could they do that?
That afternoon with Jamal and my son has reminded me of the quiet power a question has to open up another layer in a conversation and the chance it offers us, as parents, teachers and mentors, to discover what a young person may be grappling with. And often, young people are grappling with tough, complex issues – whether we ask them questions about it or not.