James Lang: the Importance of Great Questions

student raising her hand
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Cengage takes inspiration and guidance from the best books on teaching techniques.  Two of our favorite authors are James Lang (author of “Small Teaching”) and Ken Bain (author of “What the best college teachers do”).

James Lang joined us in our NYC offices in 2017 to talk about a number of the ideas that he and Ken Bain use in their teaching.  Here is an excerpt from Lang’s webinar in which he talks about the importance of starting students off with great questions.


How do we motivate student learning?

Here we’re going to talk about a structure that I borrowed from Ken Bain who wrote a great book called “What The Best College Teachers Do” and Ken argues that a lot of college teachers come into the class and essentially say, “Here’s a box of content I have for you. It’s interesting. You should learn about it”, and he argues that is NOT really the ideal way we want to motivate learners.

Another cognitive theorist whose work I really like is Dan Willingham and he says,

People are curious. People are naturally curious, but they’re not curious about answers. They’re curious about questions.

So if we just walk into class and say, “I’ve got some answers for you here.” That’s not something that’s really gonna help us motivate our students. If we step back and think about it, most of our classes, our disciplines, have been developed because we are interested in answering big conceptual questions about life, about the human condition, right?

Our disciplines and our classes are answers to deep fundamental questions, but what Ken argues is that we often don’t foreground those questions. So Ken’s idea here is that:

…we should build courses around problems, around questions, around challenges that we propose to students…

And that can be done not only in a course, but even in an individual learning session or a unit of a course or presenting that digitally or face to face.

How could we think about starting with our big questions or problems and letting students engage with those and think about them and then ultimately our courses present an answer to those [questions].