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Close-up of a hand holding a yellow sticky note that says "why?" in front of a green bush background.

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Nupur and Anna have never met face-to-face. They first worked together across countries from India to Kazakhstan, leading research teams through feminist collaborative practices on a major international funded project about gender in higher education. Then, over the years, they have written together with Nupur contributing stories of deep reflection to Anna’s books. Over this time, they have built a relationship through texting and sharing about their lives, their thoughts and their research and pedagogical practices. In the fall of 2023, Nupur and Anna talked at length about the essential foundation of asking questions for research and for pedagogical practice. It is through the willingness and engagement in asking questions that society can grow, becoming aware of what we are missing and becoming willing to move toward more justice for all.

Questioning as a Foundation for Pedagogy

“Why? What do you mean?” I asked my mum as a 4-year-old. She’d told me that I must come home from playing outside before the sun set. To my mother’s credit and my immense good luck, she did not say, “Because I told you so.” She sat me down to talk about the broken streetlights, the street dogs that turn a little aggressive at nighttime and then her trump card—my father would love to see me once he came home from work. It all made sense to me because I could follow her logic, and the extra emotional touch of bringing in my loving father clinched the deal.

I called this a stroke of good luck for me because I find going back to this instance strongly influences my pedagogy. Why would or why should my bright, young, resourceful students listen to what I have to say? Why should they read the texts I choose for class? What would be my reasons for deciding how they spend their precious time in my class? I must share my rationale with them, and I should also allow for space for them to question me as and when needed. Secondly, by not dismissing my question, my mother ensured that the spirit of inquiry, of asking to understand, of trying to figure it out for myself and not simply to accept what is told or given, remains intact. That is a powerful lesson for any young child to have.

It is an equally powerful lesson for any young adult to learn, especially if they have not had these opportunities previously at home or in their classrooms. And the lack of such opportunities seems more pronounced in student groups that belong to the marginalized sections of society. When my classes are populated with students who come from affluent families, enjoying luxuries and feeling confident, they regularly question me or demand that assignment submission dates be extended, that their workload should be reduced and so on.

But when I meet students in the same age group who are first-generation learners or whose parents are employed in blue-collar jobs, I see a sense of resignation, of acceptance and deference. One of my greatest challenges in such classrooms is to coax my students to ask me why they are reading a particular text, what does it mean to write a particular essay—anything that disturbs or annoys them.

Sometimes it takes almost a semester to get them to do that. Initially they are scandalized. “How can I ask anything, ma’am?” one asks incredulously. “You are the teacher.”

“But does that make me right?” I counter. They giggle shyly or frown with concentration. A new world opens—one where it is possible that someone in a position of power, more affluent than they, could be wrong. Or one where there is no one answer.

This new world affords an exciting place for all of us. The classroom becomes more animated as students who were laughing and arguing with friends outside bring that same spirit of being alive, of individuality, of passion, to question or argue what happens in the classroom.

We only have a couple of weeks to go before the semester ends. A hand raises. “Why are we reading this essay? How does this connect to what we had done earlier? Or are we starting something entirely new?” asks a student. The class scrambles to turn pages and think of answers. I smile. My job is done. —Nupur Samuel

So, what does this mean for educational leaders and teachers? How can we use questioning with our own pedagogical practice? Perhaps the first step is just to pause and ask ourselves if we’re willing to not know, to question ourselves and become vulnerable to hear and receive feedback. Then we can consider the potential: the potential for interaction, the potential for engagement, the potential to share meaningful learning with and through others.

What does questioning in your pedagogical practice look like for you?

Nupur Samuel teaches at the Centre for Writing Studies at OP Jindal Global University in India. Nupur’s research interests are second-language education, critical thinking pedagogy, writing studies, language assessment and learner autonomy; she strives to bring all these together to promote inclusive pedagogy. Anna CohenMiller is a transnational motherscholar, TEDx speaker and multiple award–winning researcher, author and educational leader. A full professor at Nord University in Norway, Anna specializes in demystifying research using innovative arts-based approaches to cultivate awareness, connection, collaboration and community alliances promoting justice-centered praxis.

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