Asking meaningful questions

Learning to ask meaningful questions using the ‘List of Notions’

Based on a text from 1987 by Anne-Ruth Wertheim and Herrie van Borssum.
The text was updated in 2007 by Anne-Ruth Wertheim and Theo Jansen.
(translation from Dutch into English by Nicola Chadwick).

The List of Notions is a method which teaches how to ask more and better questions. Through this method, pupils and course participants wonder more, their range of questions becomes more varied, and the questions themselves delve deeper. Pupils and course participants become more personally involved in what they want to know and take the person who they are asking the questions more into account. They also start formulating their questions more carefully. When the method is used by a group, it also ensures that more members of the group are involved in asking the questions.

The List of Notions is can be summed up as a cross between two interesting education reforms. One is ‘Open Project Education’ ( or and the second is what used to be called ‘Word Printing’ and is now called ‘Language Development’ (
In project education, we had years of experience with how pupils go about asking questions when they researched topics they themselves had chosen. We developed methods to improve writing reports and to bring order to the answers that had been gathered. This method is described in a DVD which can be ordered from the abovementioned website on open project education: ‘Pupils learn to research, the List of Points method’.
This enabled us to a certain extent to improve the quality of the questions themselves. But we continued looking for possibilities to focus on tackling the actual posing of questions. In ‘Word Printing’ we found the elements we needed and integrated them into the existing methods on learning to research in Open Project Education.The List of Notions was at first developed in Open Project Education at Wageningen Highschool but was finalized in Adult education at primary level. It is however suitable for all other forms of education. There is a description later in this text on how teachers and course supervisors can create their own List of Notions for their group.

The questions can be made with different intentions in different situations:

  1. They may be meant for an interview outside the school or institution.They may be put to a guest speaker in the group.
  2. They may also be put to a teacher or course supervisor, for instance after a presentation or after audiovisual material that has been shown.
  3. The List of Notions can also be used to get pupils/course participants to ask themselves questions about a certain topic, i.e. regardless of who they are going to put the questions to later.
  4. The method may eventually support the process of choosing a topic. Asking yourself what you want to know about the topic you are considering choosing may help you decide whether or not to pursue it.

It is very important to ask meaningful questions. In many forms of education, pupils become used to it being the teachers (or books) who ask questions and they that have to answer them. This makes it seem to pupils and course participants that asking questions is the equivalent of ignorance. In open project education, they are taught that thinking up and posing well-thought out questions is a sign that you have learnt something, that meaningful questions can be the result of a learning process.

Working with the List of Notions means taking a number of steps. First, the pupils/course participants are made familiar with a number (three for instance) of notions which the teachers/course supervisors have chosen from the following list, which of course can be added to.

The notions are in arbitrary order:

(lack of) development

making choices
sense of history

(development) aid
(development) cooperation

Not all these notions are meant in the literal sense of the word, but we name them so here for the sake of simplicity. However, the pupils/course participants may 'play' with each of the three chosen notions (for instance: isolation, resistance and aid) for a while, so that they can graft them, as it were, to their own experiences and knowledge. That way the notions start to mean something to them: they can imagine something by it and feel a connection with themselves. Once they have taken ownership of the notions, you can get them to think up questions.
Which notions you choose from the given list depends on the topic being discussed or that the group has chosen. So see which notions you think are most suitable. You can also choose them just because you think they are important notions to get your group to use for a while. The chosen notions and the way in which they are worked with in this method can be adapted to every level of the group.

Explanation of the method on the basis of an actual example
In an Open School Group of women in primary level Adult Education, Mrs B. was to visit and answer questions on her development work in Nicaragua. She had sent information in advance and that had been read by the group. The course supervisor had chosen isolation, resistance and aid from the list of notions, because they suited the presentation expected to be given by Mrs B. These notions were filled in on a form which was handed out.Isolation
The group first dealt with isolation. It was necessary to explain the meaning of this word first to this group by asking the group for familiar associations: isolation electrical wires, isolation cell, etc. Then a poem a Chilean political prisoner wrote for his child was read out.After this introduction, course participants were asked to write down a number of events from their time at primary school in which they felt alone, isolated in connection with the notion isolation. What they wrote down only needed to be comprehendible to themselves and could be noted in a couple of words.

One course participant noted:

  • miss.Groeneweg
  • Riet gone
  • daddy (too late)
  • jumping rope
  • swimming lesson

We set to work on the other notions in the same way. The notion resistance was introduced by handing out a reproduction of a painting that an inhabitant of the Brazilian rain forest had painted with paints he made himself from leaves. In the accompanying text, the course participants could read how the man protested against the felling of the rain forest by making paintings.
Then they were asked to remember 'small acts of resistance' which they had done in their own lives: not saying 'yes' to an unreasonable request for once, not going somewhere you did not want to go to, but which you were expected to go to, standing up for someone who was being discriminated against, etc. The course participants could once again keep what they had written down to themselves and just make a small list of incidents.

The same course participant noted:

  • writing lines
  • not going to church
  • Josje

For the notion aid, a text about development aid from the Dutch magazine ‘Onze Wereld’ (Our World) was chosen. It was the personal story about a volunteer, who had dug out a channel for drinking water together with young people from all over Europe and villagers for a development project in Turkey.
The accompanying list of personal experiences had to be about help you hoped to be given by other people when you got old later in life or if you needed help for another reason.

The course participant noted:

  • not in old people's home
  • car
  • doing the washing

The questions that were to be put to Mrs B.
The next step was to think up questions to ask Mrs B. The course participants could briefly note everything they would like to know on the form. The questions could be written down in any order and there had to be as many as possible.
To be able to think up questions, they were allowed to use anything they had ever heard or read about Nicaragua and about the notions they had dealt with and everything they had thought about their own lives. It did not matter if the questions were 'impolite'; they would always be able to scrap or change how they were formulated when they rewrote them neatly. It did not matter if the questions were still worded unclearly; they would be helped with them – if necessary.

The course participant wrote down the following questions:

  • Have you ever felt alone in Nicaragua?
  • Why do white people feel they are better than brown people?
  • Were you afraid when you helped the priest? (this incident was described in the material that was handed out in advance)
  • Are the Contras in Nicaragua the ‘resistance’?
  • Was there any difference between men and women?
  • Were children allowed to do much?
  • Are the elderly in Nicaragua allowed to live independently (it said: on their own)?
  • Did you see people who did not get helped, for instance because they belonged to the Contras?

It's interesting how the course participant integrated the notions isolation, resistance and aid into her own questions. You can also see by the questions how she had empathised with the experiences of Mrs B.

Comparison of the kind of questions that are made with and without the List of Notions
The questions posed by the women of this Open School Group using the List of Notions could not be compared to questions by a group which was not prepared. But we could compare the questions with two different Extra Lesson Groups of women from Primary Adult Education.
We showed the DVD The goose snatches the bread from the ducks, my childhood in a Japanese prison camp on the isle of Java and the course participants were to put questions to Anne-Ruth Wertheim afterwards, who had made the DVD about her own childhood (the DVD can be ordered at
In one Extra Lesson Group, we prepared the showing of the slide sound image with the List of Notions, and with the other group we did not. We choose the notions: emancipation, racism and making choices.

The following questions were asked by the group without preparation (corrected):

  • How long was the war in Indonesia exactly?
  • What were the dolls in the DVD made of?
  • Why were there Indonesian guards?
  • Who were the Japanese allied with?

In the Extra Lesson Group which did work with the List of Notions (with the notions emancipation, racism and making choices) the following questions were asked (corrected):

  • How can someone go on after an experience like this?
  • Can what happened in that camp be compared to what Moroccan and Turkish children experience here?
  • Was there any difference between how men and women dared to act towards the Japanese?
  • Do people who are oppressed always develop a strong bond?
  • How come you feel you are better than someone else?
  • How can so many people want the injustice to end and it not happen?
  • Men wielded power in the camps, would it have been different if it had been the women?

The notions emancipation, racism and making choices are not explicit in the questions, but you can find them all the same.
It is clear that the questions prepared with the List of Notions delved much deeper than the questions made without preparation. The latter were mainly factual. There is nothing wrong with factual questions in themselves, but strictly speaking you do not need a guest speaker or person to be interviewed to answer them; these answers can often be found on the internet or in an encyclopaedia.

The questions of the group which worked with the List of Notions were also much more personal. And by this, we mean they were more about the personal experiences and ideas of the guest, as well as that they show the course participants dealt with them in a more involved way.

Before we developed the List of Notions, we often noticed how rude the course participants sounded when they fired personal questions at the invited guests, in particular when they had been through a lot. Their attitude and tone as well as how they formulated their questions, showed they were curious about the answers, but the questioning was one-sided while they remained totally on the outside. Telling the course participants that this was not pleasant hardly helped. Working with the List of Notions turned out to make a world of difference. Making the pupils/course participants think about their own experiences first and using them in their questions, automatically made them show involvement and respect.

Making new questions after an interview or the presentation of audiovisual material
When a group has drafted questions without preparation, it can do so after the interview using the List of Notions. Of course, these questions cannot be put to the guest speaker, so the answers have to be found in other ways. The aim is to make it clear how important questions are, almost more important than the answers. Questions are also worthwhile when they are not answered straight away. When they stay in the back of your mind, they make you think more deeply about things you encounter later on.

In the Extra Lesson Group which drafted questions without preparation on the DVD about the Japanese prison camps and then worked with the List of Notions, the following questions were made (corrected):

  • Why were white people in Indonesia in the first place?
  • Do children’s eyes see the same as adult eyes?
  • Do you forget what happened to yourself more easily than what happened to someone else?
  • Why were the Jews grouped in between the non-Jews and the Eastern Jews?
  • Is there a difference between discrimination against a Western skin colour and against political views?

Making your own List of Notions Lesson
As the teacher or course supervisor, you choose (three) notions from the list yourself. Which ones you choose depends, as already said, on the context in which the List of Notions is used.

Searching a suitable introduction per notion
Find a suitable introduction for each of the notions which has been chosen. It can be a story or a passage from a book which you read out loud or get the course participants to read. It can also be a sculpture to look at, a reproduction of a painting or a poster. Or you can select a fragment from a CD to listen to, with a song or poem which has been read aloud or a piece of music with special meaning. It can also be a fragment of a film or a television programme which illustrates the notion.
If you make sure the introduction is creative, you indicate that the notion should not be considered in a too businesslike or technical way. However, you could decide to do just this, if you think it will catch on in the group or if you think the notion should be approached in this way.
In this phase, the idea is not to delve too deeply into the notions, with reference to great historic events or worldwide connections. That would be missing the point of working with the List of Notions: bringing the notion closer to the personal experience of the pupils/course participants.
Delving deeply into notions can be done after the questions have been written of course.

‘Bringing the notion closer to yourself’
The next step consists of getting pupils or course participants to bring the notion closer to themselves and let it become a part of them. To bring the notion closer to them in space, by asking a question about the link between the notion and their own experience. In order to think about that link, they have to draw these experiences to themselves in time. The period in which they experienced this has to be demarcated in the question and usually it is a good thing to look for experiences that are distanced a little from the ‘here and now’.
In the world of ‘Word Printing’ which is now called ‘Language Development’ we call this making everything small.

‘Making your own experience small’
In the practical example about the Open School Group, we demarcated the experiences of the course participants for the notion isolation to their primary school, which is longer ago for adults. For the notion resistance, we did not demarcate the period in time, but made the experience itself small by asking them to look for a ‘small act’ of resistance somewhere in their lives. And for the notion aid we asked them to look at their own future experiences.

You ‘make their personal experiences small’, by indicating a certain event or incident in their own lives to the pupils or course participants, so that they do not drown in a mass of thoughts about their whole childhood, their whole youth or even their whole lives. Making it small is meant to prevent really big or impressive events that only happened recently being dealt with too easily. Not that we fear emotions. But with the List of Notions personal experiences are meant bring a certain notion into the personal sphere and not to work extensively on the personal experience itself. In order to make the experiences you conjure up small, it might help to give a good example by telling about a couple of incidents in your own life.
You can vary the demarcation in time, by asking about the past one time and about the future another time.

Drafting your own questions
Your pupils or course participants have been occupied with three notions chosen by you in such a way that you can expect them to be able to imagine something by them and bring them closer to themselves. Now you ask them to think of a few questions from each of the notions for the guest or the person to be interviewed or ‘just to themselves’. Drafting these questions is done just as before, individually.

Finding the overlap in individually drafted questions
After the individual work on the questions, you can let the pupils/course participants sit in groups of two or three to find overlaps in their questions. In these groups, they can discover that some questions, if you think about them together, can be answered by yourself or other members of the group. The can also reformulate questions of find new interesting questions. Delaying the interview which is caused by this intermediate step results in increased tension in anticipation of the answers. In addition, the interview becomes more of a communal thing when you know more about why someone might be interested in a certain answer.