Is a question better than the right answer?

As the Principal of a school that is proudly non-selective and consistent in achieving outstanding learning outcomes, I’m…

As the Principal of a school that is proudly non-selective and consistent in achieving outstanding learning outcomes, I’m often asked about St Hilda’s “secret sauce”. There are of course many factors that contribute to positive learning outcomes in schools. However, there is one that we believe is essential and changes conversations in classrooms from results to progress.

Conversations around results can often be divisive and, as universities start to look more broadly at their approach to entry assessment, schools are now expected to offer more than just good test results. Schools are tasked with shaping our future workforce, so it is incumbent as educators that we prepare our students to have the skills to learn, not simply a knowledge of content.

A culture of reflection, analysis and continual improvement is important in all schools, however sometimes the most important findings that drive positive student learning outcomes can be missed, as they don’t necessarily present in hard data, particularly in the form of student results. The data tells us how good our students are at knowing the right answers. It doesn’t, however, tell us how the students know what they know.

Our secret is fostering a learning culture that is based on asking good questions. We believe that knowledge is having the right answer. Intelligence is asking the right question.

A culture of asking questions keeps our students in learning mode and open to discovering new things. It is second nature to our students and a life tool that positions them well for future success and leadership roles. Asking questions is, hands down, one of the best ways to learn and our students realise this very early on in their journey at St Hilda’s.

The learning benefits that come from asking good questions are immeasurable. A teaching philosophy that highly values question asking enhances our student’s communication skills, builds trust and strong learning partnerships with teachers and peers, promotes better decision making and allows our students to demonstrate interest and engagement in the learning process. A culture of question asking does not happen overnight. At St Hilda’s it is deeply imbedded in our DNA and our teaching philosophy. We believe a focus on asking questions gives our girls a competitive edge as they prepare for the extraordinary futures that await them. Our students quickly learn that the better the questions they ask, the better answers they get. Questions open our students’ eyes to different perspectives. This expands their insights and challenges any unconscious bias they may have. Through questioning, they learn how to think, not what to think.

Learning the art of not jumping in too early with an answer or a solution, but instead inquiring and exploring more broadly and deeply through asking good questions, allows our students to gather more information before arriving at a more thought-out answer. This also gives them more confidence for when they are ready to respond.

Our students appreciate that they need insights from others to learn and achieve their full potential, recognising that questions, not answers, are key to this. We believe that rather than competitiveness driving our academic results, our students understand the power of enquiry to help them achieve their personal best.

An excellent education is so much more than getting the answer right. Asking questions opens possibility doors for our students and is key to sparking extraordinary futures.


Fiona Johnston