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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Weber

Creating Space for Inquiry

As published in Chief Learning Officer on 01/18/2023

Simply stated, inquiry is asking for information. In learning and development, attracting and maintaining the engagement of our learners has, at times, proven to be a difficult task based on the modality we offer our training.

Creating the space for inquiry is essential for L&D professionals. When collaborating with learners with whom you have a relationship, creating the space for inquiry is far easier than if you are in front of a group of learners to whom you are new. Regardless of the audience, there are a variety of strategies that we can consider when creating space for inquiry in our training spaces.

In their book, “Discussion as a Way of Teaching,” authors Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill provide a framework for developing, enhancing and measuring discussion. Within these tools and resources, there are different types of questions we can ask our learners to get as many people as possible engaged with the topic being discussed.

As trainers, it is important that we are intentional with the types of questions we want to ask in a training. Simply “going with the flow” of a discussion and asking questions as they emerge limits the depth and engagement we will get with our learners. To ensure we maintain momentum, Brookfield and Preskill recommend asking the following types of questions:

Questions that ask for more evidence

There is great value in the variety of perspectives our learners will bring to the classroom, however, we need to be careful not to validate one opinion without exploring different viewpoints or evidence that may be present. These questions are designed to be presented as a simple request — not as a challenge to the speaker’s intelligence. These types of questions include:

  • What data are you referencing for that point?

  • If someone were to challenge what you just said, what evidence would you present to them?

As a facilitator, asking these questions can change the dynamic of the group — so, play with the wording and ask these questions in a manner that is most comfortable for you.

Questions that ask for clarification

Knowing that each of our learners have a different viewpoint, it is important that we are able to work with the statements made by asking for clarity. For example, if a learner were to make a statement using role specific language, we could say:

  • Can you please provide me with an example of what you are referencing?

  • Is there another way you could phrase that point so others can better understand?

Using phrases like, “tell me more” creates space for the learner to provide additional information, and it provides time for others to think about how they might connect to the point being made.

Linking or extension questions

Linking questions are a highly effective way to produce engagement between the learners. Questions such as:

  • Is there any connection between what you just said and what Bill said earlier?

  • How does your comment connect to Steve’s question earlier?

  • How does your observation relate to the decision your team made earlier?

Linking or extension questions are also a great method to introduce challenges to your learners. Statements that introduce challenge include:

  • From that point, who has a different view?

  • If you were to make an argument against the point that was just made, what would that sound like?

  • Who can be a “devil’s advocate” on this topic for us?

The goal of asking linking questions is to take the points being made deeper. As facilitators, linking questions can be used to demonstrate the value of multiple perspectives on a topic. As a facilitator, this is an excellent way to encourage additional inquiry from our learners.

Summary and synthesis questions

One of the more effective ways facilitators can bring a discussion back to the initial question is by asking summary or synthesis questions. These can be especially helpful if you are trying to get a discussion back on topic. Summary or synthesizing questions include:

  • What are one or two important points that emerged from that discussion?

  • What remains unsolved or unclear as a result of our discussion?

  • What key word or concept best captures our discussion?

Summary or synthesizing questions can be beneficial for learners as it can help them summarize everything they have said or heard throughout the training. Using summary or synthesizing questions also creates the space to respond to our learners by asking, “Hearing the summary of our discussion, what else do we need to talk about to better understand the topic?”

Giving space for learners to say there is more they want to discuss allows for ownership and support. Ownership to the learners to openly share where they need more information and support from their peers to encourage different ways they can continue learning.

As L&D professionals, our ability to ask effective questions will enhance the overall experience of our learners. If we are willing to allow the learners to fully engage and take the topic where it is most beneficial for them, we will see an increase in engagement both inside and outside of the training.

One additional thought

If you are having a hard time getting engagement, here are two strategies Brookfield and Preskill recommend:

Relaxed buzz groups. The facilitator will break learners into random groups and ask them to identify questions around the topic for that discussion. Learners are encouraged to share what they know and what they do not know. Groups will then present a question or two they have prepared for the facilitator around the topic. You can also use these groups to allow the learners to get to know each other better. Either way, the goal is to get your learners talking.

Structured buzz groups. The facilitator breaks learners into groups and provides them with pre-developed questions on the topic being discussed. Learners are provided a set time and once that time has been reached, learners will share their answers. From their responses, additional questions can be asked of the group to get other viewpoints.

As L&D professionals, finding creative ways to engage our learners can be a challenge. Being intentional with asking questions that place ownership on the learners is one of many ways we can demonstrate the value of multiple viewpoints in our learning experiences.

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