Wait, What? Questions to Facilitate Dialogue, Discussion and Reflection

ryan bookby Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

In 2016, James Ryan, Dean of Harvard University’s School of Education, gave a commencement speech on how asking (and answering) good question can help evoke empathy, understanding, and curiosity.  During his speech, Ryan presented “5 essential questions” that are to serve as a guide for inquiry throughout a person’s life.  They are: “Wait, what…?; I wonder….?; Couldn’t we at least…?; How can I help?; and What truly matters?”  What Ryan is proposing is that “the five questions are like five crucial keys on a key ring.  While you’ll certainly need other keys from time to time, you’ll never want to be without these five (questions)” (Ryan, 2017).

Ryan’s questions clearly resonated with people.  In the months following the graduation ceremony, a recording of Ryan’s commencement speech has received over 122 thousand YouTube views – becoming one of Harvard University’s most watched videos.  His address has also been made into a book titled, “Wait, What” And Life’s Other Essential Questions (2017).  Much like his speech, the book incorporates examples from politics, history, popular culture, and social movements, as well as his own personal life to explore how asking these essential questions offers a thought-provoking (and accessible) reflection that will challenge any person’s outlook on life.

Ryan’s “essential questions” also provide a nice reminder of how asking good questions can serve as a foundation to help facilitate classroom discussion, dialogue, and conversation.  Just as Ryan states, “the right question asked at the right time, will open a door to something you don’t yet know, something you haven’t yet realize or something you haven’t even considered – about others and about yourself” (Ryan, 2017).

Much of what Ryan’s essential questions propose mirror many of the benefits of classroom discussion.   In Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms (2012) Brookfield and Preskill, state “one of the defining characteristics of critical discussion is that participants are willing to enter the conversation with open minds. This requires people to be flexible enough to adjust their views in the light of persuasive, well-supported arguments and confident enough to retain their original opinions when rebuttals fall short”(pg. 7).  Brookfield and Preskill state the following benefits of facilitating classroom discussions through thoughtful questioning:

  1. Helps students explore a diversity of perspectives.
  2. Increases students’ awareness of and tolerance for ambiguity or complexity.
  3. Helps students recognize and investigate their assumptions.
  4. Encourages attentive, respectful listening.
  5. Develops new appreciation for continuing differences.
  6. Increases intellectual agility.
  7. Helps students become connected to a topic.
  8. Shows respect for students’ voices and experiences.
  9. Helps students learn the processes and habits of democratic discourse.
  10. Affirms students as co-creators of knowledge.
  11. Develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.
  12. Develops habits of collaborative learning.
  13. Increases breadth and makes students more empathic.
  14. Helps students develop skills of synthesis and integration.
  15. Leads to transformation.

As you begin to work on preparing to teach next semester, take a moment to reflect on the questions you might raise in classroom discussion.  Consider using questions as not just a means to check for understanding, but an opportunity to facilitate dialogue, empathy, perspective, and clarity.  As King (1995) notes, “We can further promote student use of critical questions by modeling the use of such questions ourselves.”

To better facilitate questions into teaching, The Reinert Center has a Resource Guide on Student Generated Questions, Quotations, and Talking Points.  Also, check out James Fortney’s 2016 Notebook entry on a few evidence-based strategies for facilitating diversity discussions.

If you would like to discussion dialogue and how open ended questions can bolster your teaching, consider meeting with any one of the Reinert Center staff.  We are always happy to meet.



Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2012). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. John Wiley & Sons.

King, A. (1995). Inquiring minds really do want to know: using questioning to teach critical thinking. Teaching Of Psychology2213-17.

Ryan, J. (2017). Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions. Harper Collins: New York.

Woods, K. w., & Bliss, K. (2016). Facilitating Successful Online Discussions. Journal Of Effective Teaching16(2), 76-92.