Educating for Good Questioning: a Tool for Intellectual Virtues Education
Educating for Good Questioning: a Tool for Intellectual Virtues Education
Lani Watson 0
Lani Watson 0
0 School of PPLS, University of Edinburgh , Room 5.05, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh EH8 9AD , UK
Questioning is a familiar, everyday practice which we use, often unreflectively, in order to gather information, communicate with each other, and advance our inquiries. Yet, not all questions are equally effective and not all questioners are equally adept. Being a good questioner requires a degree of proficiency and judgment, both in determining what to ask and in deciding who, where, when, and how to ask. Good questioning is an intellectual skill. Given its ubiquity and significance, it is an intellectual skill that, I believe, we should educate for. In this paper, I present a central line of argument in support of educating for good questioning, namely, that it plays an important role in the formation of an individual's intellectual character and can thereby serve as a valuable pedagogical tool for intellectual character education. I argue that good questioning plays two important roles in the cultivation of intellectual character: good questioning (1) stimulates intellectually virtuous inquiry and (2) contributes to the development of several of the individual intellectual virtues. Insofar as the cultivation of intellectually virtuous character is a desirable educational objective, we should educate for good questioning. Questioning is a familiar, everyday practice. We ask questions from an early age in order to gather and exchange information, to communicate our needs and desires, to engage others in conversation, and to advance both our public and private inquiries. Questioning, in short, is an essential component of our collective, social, and intellectual endeavours. Yet, not all questions are equally effective and not all questioners are equally adept at achieving these ends. Being a good questioner requires a degree of proficiency and judgement, both in determining what to ask and in deciding who, where, when, and how to ask. Good questioning is an intellectual skill. Given its ubiquity and personal and societal significance, it is an intellectual skill that, I believe, we should educate for. In this paper, I present a central line of argument in support of educating for good questioning, namely, that it plays an important role in the formation of an individual's intellectual character. Educating for the
skill of good questioning, therefore, serves as a valuable pedagogical tool for intellectual
character education. I argue that the intellectual skill of good questioning plays two
important and closely related roles in the formation of intellectual character. Firstly, good
questioning stimulates intellectually virtuous inquiry. Secondly, good questioning
contributes to the development of several of the individual intellectual virtues. As such, the skill of
good questioning contributes to the formation of intellectually virtuous character as a
whole. Insofar as the development of intellectually virtuous character is a desirable
educational objective, we should educate for good questioning.1
1 Intellectual Skill and Intellectual Virtue
To begin, a discussion of intellectual skills, intellectual virtues, and the relationship between
them will be helpful. I take the terms ?intellectual skills? and ?intellectual virtues? to refer to
distinct subsets of two larger domains, namely, the domains of skill and virtue.
Characterising intellectual skills and intellectual virtues is, therefore, largely a matter of
characterising skills and virtues simpliciter. Where this challenge arises, in both virtue
ethics and virtue epistemology, it is often helpfully framed by a discussion of the distinction
between skills and virtues. By clarifying this distinction, authors seek to define the nature of
skills and virtues themselves
(Foot 1978; Wallace 1978; Meilaender 1984; Broadie 1991;
Zagzebski 1996; Baehr 2011)
. Whilst there is not space to examine the distinction in detail
here, two key differences between skills and virtues are worth noting. Firstly, skills need not
be exercised in order to be properly considered skills, whereas virtues must be exercised,
under the appropriate circumstances, in order to be considered virtues
Meilaender 1984; Zagzebski 1996)
. A skilled pianist, for example, may stop playing the
piano and still retain her skill, whereas an honest man who stops telling the truth (under the
appropriate circumstances) can no longer be considered honest. Secondly, the exercise of
skill does not require a person to have any particular motivation, whereas the exercise of
virtue requires that a person be virtuously motivated
(Montmarquet 1992; Zagzebski 1996;
. The skilled pianist who plays purely for financial gain is still a skilled pianist,
whereas the honest man who is motivated to tell the truth purely for financial gain will not
(under most circumstances) be considered virtuously honest.
These two key differences point towards a more general distinction between skills and
virtues: virtues are characterological, and skills are not. Put another way, virtues constitute
praiseworthy features of a person?s character, whilst skills constitute praiseworthy features
of a person?s actions or endeavours. As Jason
observes, ?intellectual skills are
not personal in the way that intellectual virtues are? (p. 30). We do not, for example, learn
anything (for certain) about a person?s character, merely by learning that she is a skilled
pianist, whereas learning that a man is virtuously honest necessarily tells us that he has an
honest character. In short, we speak of virtuous, but not skilled character. This distinction
between skills and virtues is worth bearing in mind for the following discussion.2
1 I do not offer a defence of intellectual character education in this paper. For compelling arguments in support
of this approach, see
, and Baehr 2011, 2013, 2016. For some early critical comments,
2 For a more detailed discussion on the nature of skills and virtues, see Linda Zagzebski?s Virtues of the Mind
(Zagzebski 1996, pp. 106?116)
and Jason Baehr?s The Inquiring Mind
(Baehr 2011, pp. 17?32)
. For an
overview of further relevant work in virtue epistemology, see
What makes a particular skill or virtue distinctively intellectual is a further challenge
faced by virtue epistemologists concerned with defining the intellectual skills and virtues.
, for example, argues that the ?Intellectual virtues are best viewed as
a form of moral virtue? (p. 139). In contrast, Julia
, 2003) argues against the
conflation of the moral and intellectual virtues, citing cases in which the two appear
attempts to define a middle ground between these two positions
(pp. 206?222). As defining the intellectual skills and virtues is not the focus of this paper, it
will suffice to take the identification of distinctively intellectual skills and virtues as a
useful, if imperfect means of carving up the undeniably complex terrain comprising the
various domains of human experience. More significant, for present purposes, is the
relationship between the intellectual skills and the intellectual virtues. Here, I follow
authors such as
Roberts and Wood (2007)
in taking the intellectual
virtues to be importantly related to and partly constituted by intellectual skills: part of what
it is to be intellectually virtuous is to possess and exhibit certain intellectual skills.
Zagzebski, for example, writes, ?Skills serve virtues by allowing a person who is virtuously
motivated to be effective in action? (p. 113). Given that effectively exercising one?s
intellectual virtues, under the appropriate circumstances, is a requirement of being
intellectually virtuous, on Zagzebski?s account of the virtues, intellectual skill is thereby necessary,
but not sufficient, for intellectual virtue. Similarly,
Roberts and Wood (2007)
?all virtues bear some relation or other to skills by which we negotiate generically human
activities? (p. 59). The intellectual skills one requires in order to be intellectually virtuous
will, of course, vary depending on the intellectual virtue(s) in question. Perspective-taking,
for example, is an intellectual skill plausibly required in order to be virtuously open-minded
(Riggs 2010; Baehr 2011)
. The ability to maintain focus is an intellectual skill plausibly
integral to intellectual perseverance. Zagzebski (1996) identifies ?perceptual acuity? as an
intellectual skill closely associated with intellectual thoroughness and care (p. 114). In each
case, the exercise of intellectual virtue requires the exercise of intellectual skill.
This close relationship between intellectual skills and intellectual virtues can be traced
back to the Aristotelian account of the virtues in which the intellectual virtues are seen to
require a degree of skill that is learned or cultivated
(Nicomachean Ethics, II.1, Aristotle
. Indeed, it is skill, at least in part, that distinguishes the virtuous from the
nonvirtuous. A person may be virtuously motivated and yet fail to possess intellectual virtue
because they lack the intellectual skill required to act virtuously under the appropriate
circumstances. A person may be non-virtuously open-minded, for example, by failing to
make appropriate judgements about whose perspective to take in a given situation. If I
assign equal weight to the perspectives of a seasoned detective and her three-year-old child
at the scene of a crime, I am arguably exhibiting a non-virtuous kind of open-mindedness.
Virtuous open-mindedness requires a greater degree of skill and judgement. Educating for
intellectual skill is, therefore, an essential aspect of educating for intellectual virtue. It is
unsurprisingly from the Aristotelian tradition also that the idea of educating for the
intellectual virtues arises. Aristotle writes, ?Both the coming-into-being and increase of
intellectual virtue result mostly from teaching?
(Nicomachean Ethics, II.1, Aristotle 2011)
Indeed, it is at least in part because the intellectual virtues require a degree of skill in order
to be intellectual virtues that they find a natural home in an educational environment where
skills can be taught and practiced. The teaching of intellectual skills, in general, can be
viewed as a crucial stage in the cultivation of intellectually virtuous character. In what
follows, I argue that good questioning is one of the key intellectual skills to educate for in
order to cultivate intellectually virtuous character. I first offer some remarks on the
intellectual skill of good questioning.
2 Good Questioning as an Intellectual Skill
Questioning can be broadly characterised as an intellectual skill, alongside numerous
other activities such as reading, counting, deducing, solving equations, playing chess,
doing crosswords, and so on. As noted, determining why each of these is a distinctively
intellectual skill is not the focus of the present discussion. It will suffice to think of the
label ?intellectual? as an imprecise but useful means of distinguishing intellectual skills
from other types of skills (for example, ?physical? skills, such as hitting a baseball or
dancing a pirouette). Note, however, that unlike reading or counting, good questioning
is a complex intellectual skill in the sense that it will frequently involve the exercise of
prudential, and moral judgements, alongside intellectual ones. In this regard, good
questioning is akin to similarly complex intellectual skills such as argumentation. Good
argumentation can be characterised by a broadly intellectual goal, namely that of
persuading others of the truth, merits, feasibility, and so on, of a particular conclusion.
In order to achieve this goal, the good arguer may find herself drawing on a range of
intellectual, prudential, and moral resources. She may, for example, choose to present
her argument just after lunch when her audience is happy and thereby more likely to
accept her conclusion. Or she may emphasise the affective dimensions of her argument
in order to produce an emotional response that will lead the audience to favour her
conclusion. These prudential and moral judgements form part of the skill of good
argumentation vis-?-vis the goal of persuading others of the truth, merits, feasibility,
and so on, of a particular conclusion. The intellectual skill of good argumentation
extends beyond the mechanics of constructing a valid set of inferences from premises to
conclusion. A valid set of inferences may be thought of as a ?good argument?, in some
sense, but good argumentation is more than this. It is a rich and complex intellectual
skill embedded within a social context.
Likewise, the intellectual skill of good questioning is embedded within a social
context and is governed by a set of societal and self-generating norms. Appreciating
this social context is essential to understanding good questioning as an intellectual skill.
It too can be characterised by a broadly intellectual goal, namely that of eliciting
information. In order to achieve this goal, the good questioner may find herself drawing
on a range of intellectual, prudential, and moral resources. She may, for example,
choose to ask her question at a particularly convenient time when she knows she will be
more likely to get the information she needs. Or she may decide that one person rather
than another will be more likely to provide her with the information she needs, based
on any number of judgements spanning the intellectual, moral, and prudential domains.
These judgements form part of the skill of good questioning vis-?-vis the goal of
eliciting information. We will examine this goal in more detail in due course. For now,
it is helpful to draw attention to the contextual features of good questioning as an
intellectual skill. These contextual features reveal that the skill of good questioning
extends beyond the mechanics of constructing an interrogative sentence that expresses
a desire for this or that piece of information. Such a sentence may be thought of as a
?good question?, in some (limited) sense, but good questioning is more than this. It
requires the questioner to make appropriate judgements about how to acquire the
information that she needs or wants. Like good argumentation, good questioning is a
rich and complex intellectual skill.
For any type of skill, a person can be better or worse at executing it. Moreover, a
person?s level of skill, in any domain, is a matter of degree. Indeed, the spectrum is such
that at one extreme end of it, a person may no longer be counted as exhibiting any skill
at all. If a person is a very poor reader, for example, then she may not count as
performing an intellectual skill, but rather as attempting and failing to do so. In this
case, we might regard the person as engaging in an intellectual activity, rather than
exhibiting an intellectual skill. It nonetheless seems right to say that an activity, such as
reading, is at least sometimes an intellectual skill that one can fail to exhibit, or be better
or worse at: more or less skilled. Likewise, questioning is an intellectual skill that one
can be better or worse at. If a person is a very poor questioner, we might say that she is
engaging in an intellectual activity, but not exhibiting an intellectual skill. Alternatively,
we might say that she is attempting and failing to exhibit an intellectual skill. At any
rate, when characterised as an intellectual skill, questioning, like any other skill, can be
more, or less skilled, by a matter of degree.
What makes questioning more or less skilled? Put another way, what makes
questioning good or bad?
Before answering this, it is worth highlighting the sense of ?good? in operation in the
question. This is the sense which typically attaches to the exercise of a skill, for example,
when one speaks of a good driver or a good juggler. This sense of good is distinctively
non-moral. It attaches equally to the exercise of complex intellectual skills such as good
argumentation and good questioning. One may emphasise the affective dimensions of a
line of argument in a particularly distasteful or manipulative way, for example, and still
achieve the goal of persuading others of its conclusion. Thus, one may be a good arguer
qua intellectual skill, that is, good at achieving the intellectual goal of argumentation,
without being good in any moral sense. Similarly, one may ask hurtful or embarrassing
questions and still achieve the goal of eliciting the information one is after. Thus, one
may be a good questioner qua intellectual skill, that is, good at eliciting information,
without being good in any moral sense. Herein, the distinction between intellectual skills
and intellectual virtues is again manifest: intellectual skills do not require virtuous
motivations. What, then, makes questioning good as an intellectual skill?
Here, we can return to an examination of the characteristic goal of questioning,
namely, that of eliciting information.3 Questions are, in essence, information-eliciting
acts. A person can be more or less skilled at performing such acts, and accordingly, they
will be a more or less skilled questioner. The intellectual skill of good questioning
arises when a person not only acts in order to elicit information, but acts competently in
order to elicit worthwhile information. I offer a more detailed account of good
questioning elsewhere (Watson, Educating for Good Questioning as a Democratic
Skill, forthcoming), so I will provide a condensed version here: the good questioner
3 Note the contrast between ?eliciting? information and alternatives such as ?gathering? or ?acquiring?
information. This is significant insofar as one thinks of gathering or acquiring something as implying that it
is not something that one already has. In contrast, one can elicit information, on behalf of another, even when
one already has the information oneself. Teachers are often engaged in this activity, asking questions to which
they already know the answer, in order to elicit information that their students do not yet have. Thus the goal of
questioning is best characterised as eliciting rather than gathering or acquiring information.
acts competently in order to elicit worthwhile information. A questioner acts
competently when she makes appropriate judgements about who, when, where, and how to
elicit information: the good questioner asks the right questions, of the right information
source(s), at the right time and place. It is here that the contextual features of good
questioning are most apparent. I may know what information I need but be a poor judge
of who to ask in order to elicit that information. Asking a detective?s three-year-old
daughter if she has checked for fingerprints at the scene of a crime would be an instance
of questioning gone awry not because the question itself is flawed, but because my
judgement about who will be able to provide me with the information is. In this case, I
am failing to achieve the goal of good questioning, namely, eliciting information, due to
a faulty judgement on my part, and so I am failing to exercise the intellectual skill of
A questioner elicits worthwhile information when she makes appropriate
judgements about what information to elicit: the good questioner avoids eliciting trivial or
disvaluable information and elicits information that is relevant or significant given her
aims and context. Asking a detective at the scene of a crime what she had for lunch,
rather than whether she has checked for fingerprints, would reflect poor judgement
about what to ask, rather than who (assuming that information about the detective?s
lunch is irrelevant to the investigation). In this case, I am again failing to achieve the
goal of good questioning, namely, eliciting information, due to a faulty judgement on
my part, and so I am failing to exercise the intellectual skill of good questioning. Here
again, the contextual features of good questioning play a role. Indeed, these apparently
distinct conditions for good questioning?competency and worthiness?are often
closely related, if not fully interdependent, in real-world situations. One may not, for
example, be able to determine what to ask without also determining who to ask. If the
only person to ask at the scene of a crime is a detective?s three-year-old daughter, I
should adjust the information that I attempt to elicit to reflect this. Of course, in either
case, one may fail to elicit information due to some factor outside one?s control, in
which case one would not be failing to exhibit the skill of good questioning.
Successfully eliciting information is not a requirement for good questioning; acting
competently in order to elicit worthwhile information is. It is in virtue of satisfying these
conditions that the questioner transforms the activity of questioning into the skill of
good questioning. The good questioner acts competently in order to elicit worthwhile
Good questioning, then, is an intellectual skill that allows us to elicit information. It
enables us to effectively navigate our informational environment in order to identify
and access the information that we need or want in a given situation. There are, of
course, multiple reasons why one might employ this skill and multiple uses for the
information once acquired. Given this, one might think that information eliciting is not
the proper or only goal of good questioning. One might ask questions in order to
express care or concern, for example, or to disrupt a process or humiliate a colleague or
for any number of other reasons where information eliciting is not the conscious,
explicit, or ultimate aim. In each of these cases, however, information eliciting is still
the common factor. When I express care for a friend by asking him how he is feeling, I
do so by means of an information-eliciting act, by asking a question. I could choose to
express care by giving him a hug instead. But when I do so by asking a question, I
express a desire for information and it is this that does the work of showing him that I
care, even when the information itself is not my conscious, explicit, or ultimate aim.
Similarly, if I attempt to humiliate a colleague by asking him in public why he can?t tie
his shoelaces properly, I do so by means of an information eliciting act, by asking a
question. I could have chosen to point at his shoelaces and laugh loudly in order to
achieve the same humiliating effect. But if I choose to ask a question, I achieve this
effect by expressing a desire for information and it is this that does the work of
humiliating him, even when the information itself is not my conscious, explicit, or
ultimate aim. With respect to the norms that govern the practice, the goal of questioning
is always information-elicitation. Likewise for the intellectual skill of good
questioning. The good questioner acts competently in order to elicit worthwhile
information. Having provided in outline a characterisation of good questioning as
an intellectual skill, we may now return to the central question: why should we
educate for good questioning? In particular, how does good questioning stimulate
intellectually virtuous inquiry and contribute to the development of intellectually
3 Good Questioning and Intellectually Virtuous Inquiry
The argument that good questioning stimulates intellectually virtuous inquiry is not, in
essence, a difficult one to make. Questioning, as an activity in general, often marks the
beginning of inquiry, which involves both the asking and answering of questions.
Indeed, the initiation of inquiry could be viewed as one of the most conspicuous and
essential roles that questioning plays in our daily lives. Simply in virtue of its role in
initiating inquiry, questioning generates opportunities for intellectually virtuous
inquiry: if there are fewer inquiries overall, there will more than likely be fewer intellectually
virtuous inquiries. The good questioner, moreover, elicits worthwhile information in a
competent manner and in doing so not only generates opportunities for intellectually
virtuous inquiry, but increases the likelihood of an inquiry being intellectually virtuous.
By ensuring that the subject of an inquiry is worthwhile, for example, the good
questioner helps to avoid the pursuit of trivial or disvaluable lines of inquiry. Asking
a detective at the scene of a crime what she had for lunch (instead of, say, whether she
has checked for fingerprints) would be an instance of bad questioning initiating
nonintellectually virtuous inquiry. This is due to the pursuit of ?the wrong? information
(given one?s aims and context). Likewise, hours spent inquiring after the number of
motes of dust on one?s desk
, rather than, say, tracking down important
information on behalf of a student, would be an instance of bad questioning initiating
non-intellectually virtuous inquiry. The good questioner guards against initiating such
inquiries by identifying the most worthwhile information to elicit given her aims and
context. Similarly, by ensuring that an inquiry is initiated and conducted competently,
the good questioner helps to reduce the likelihood of inquiry going astray, even when
worthwhile information is being pursued. Asking a detective?s three-year-old daughter
if she has checked for fingerprints at the scene of a crime would be an instance of bad
questioning initiating non-intellectually virtuous inquiry. This is due to poor judgement
about how to go about eliciting the information. The good questioner guards against
initiating such inquiries by identifying effective ways to elicit information in a
particular context (for example, by asking the detective instead of her daughter).
In addition, questioning not only initiates but also guides and shapes inquiry. The
questions that are asked once an inquiry has begun determine what information is
pursued at each stage and how one goes about eliciting that information. If I continue
my line of inquiry regarding the state of the crime scene with the detective?s
three-yearold daughter, instead of with the detective, I will no doubt end up conducting a
drastically different, and less effective, inquiry. It is precisely the skill involved in good
questioning?in identifying what, when, where, who, and how to ask?that enables the
good questioner to guard against common questioning pitfalls throughout inquiry:
asking for the wrong information, from the wrong source, in the wrong way, and so
on can, in any number of ways, divert or impede the initiation and progress of
intellectually virtuous inquiry. Good questioning, on the other hand, increases the
likelihood and facilitates the progress of intellectually virtuous inquiry.
The role that good questioning plays in initiating and guiding intellectually virtuous
inquiry is as significant in the classroom as it is elsewhere. Without good questioning,
opportunities for intellectually virtuous inquiry in the classroom will be less prevalent
and inquiry that does take place will be more likely to go astray. This is a simple but an
important point. Good questioning has a valuable educative role to play in initiating and
guiding intellectually virtuous inquiry. The significance of good teacher questioning in
education has been recognised and articulated, in a number of different guises, by
educational theorists and practitioners
(Bloom 1956; Gall 1970; Dillon 1982; Rose and
Litcher 1998; Walsh and Sattes 2016)
. In particular, research has focused on the role
that good questioning plays in stimulating learning and initiating class discussion.
, for example, an early and prominent advocate of good
questioning in education, provides a well-known ?taxonomy of questions?, constituting
a hierarchy of question types. This hierarchy is intended to be employed by teachers in
the classroom in order to advance students through deeper and more sophisticated
stages of inquiry, developing specific skills, such as analysis and evaluation, along the
way. Good teacher questioning is thus taken to play a vital role in initiating and guiding
student inquiry, according to Bloom?s taxonomy. This sentiment is echoed throughout
both theoretical and practical research on teacher questioning in education. Describing
a surge in the use of questions as a pedagogical tool in the 1970s and the early 1980s,
comments that ?Questions are held to generate more
discussion, and higher-order questions are presumed to stimulate higher-order thought
and longer responses? (p. 129). More recently,
Walsh and Sattes (2016)
teachers? use of ?quality questions? in the classroom, arguing that ?Quality questions
focus attention, stimulate thinking, and result in learning at different levels of cognitive
complexity? (p. xvi). Whilst research such as this has not, thus far, been framed
explicitly in terms of stimulating intellectually virtuous inquiry, the benefits of good
teacher questioning in the classroom that are identified throughout this literature can be
easily understood in these terms.
As indicated, much of the research on good questioning in education has focused on
the teacher?s questioning skills and the effects of good teacher questioning on
classroom inquiry. The skill involved in good teacher questioning is, in at least one
important respect, more nuanced than the skill involved in good student questioning.
Specifically, teachers are often required to ask questions to which they already know
the answer in order to elicit information that will be valuable for their students?
learning. This requires the teacher to make subtle judgements not about what they
want or need to know, but about the epistemic needs of their students. The key skill,
acting competently in order to elicit worthwhile information, remains the same, but it
must be performed to a somewhat more sophisticated or nuanced degree. That being
said, it is not hard to see how educating for good student questioning can have very
similar positive effects in the classroom, as good teacher questioning. Indeed, research
that has focused specifically on student questioning suggests a number of additional
benefits that emerge as a direct result of placing the emphasis on students, rather than
teachers, engaging in good questioning. Positive effects on the retention of information
(Ross and Killey 1977)
, problem-solving abilities and classroom engagement
and Covington 1965)
, and cognitive development more generally
(Chouinard et al.
have all been associated with the quality and/or frequency of student questioning.
These benefits speak to the valuable educative role of good questioning. Without good
questioning in the classroom, these benefits may not emerge. Again, whilst this
research is not framed explicitly in terms of intellectually virtuous inquiry, the positive
effects of good student questioning that have been identified in this literature lend
support to the claim that good questioning stimulates and maintains intellectually
virtuous inquiry. In this way, the intellectual skill of good questioning provides the
raw material, so to speak, namely, intellectually virtuous inquiry itself, which helps
facilitate the cultivation of intellectually virtuous character.
4 Good Questioning and Intellectually Virtuous Character
Once intellectually virtuous inquiry has been initiated in the classroom,
opportunities for practising and refining the individual intellectual virtues arise. Good
questioning, once again, serves as a valuable pedagogical tool in this regard. We
can observe this by taking a closer look at the relationship between good questioning
and several of the individual intellectual virtues. I have chosen five familiar
intellectual virtues below: attentiveness, intellectual autonomy, intellectual humility,
intellectual courage, and inquisitiveness. In each case, good questioning provides
an opportunity for the exercise of the virtue, when performed under appropriate
virtue-relevant conditions. By ?virtue-relevant conditions?, I simply mean
conditions relevant to the exercise of the virtue in question. Conditions relevant to the
exercise of intellectual autonomy, for example, will often be different from those
relevant to the exercise of intellectual humility. Likewise, the same conditions may
be virtue-relevant for one person and not for another. If I were particularly nervous
about expressing my ideas in public, for example, the conditions relevant for my
exercising the virtue of intellectual courage would be different from those relevant
for someone who is not nervous about doing so.
In what follows I argue that, when combined with intellectually virtuous motivations
and performed in circumstances relevant to the exercise of the virtue in question, the
intellectual skill of good questioning can be viewed as itself a form of attentiveness,
intellectual autonomy, intellectual humility, intellectual courage, or inquisitiveness. In
other words, good questioning is at least sometimes partly constitutive of each of these
individual intellectual virtues. As noted above, I follow
and Wood (2007)
in recognising the necessary and partly constitutive role that
intellectual skills play in the exercise of intellectual virtues. As such, my claim is that, at
least sometimes, the skill of good questioning is the intellectual skill which partly
constitutes the intellectual virtues discussed. A person who engages in good
questioning may thereby exhibit any one of these intellectual virtues, assuming that
they have virtuous motivations and that the appropriate virtue-relevant conditions are in
place. Thus, by educating for good questioning, one affords diverse opportunities for
exhibiting, practising, and refining (at least) these five intellectual virtues in the
classroom. Indeed, it seems plausible that the same could be said for many others, if
not all, of the intellectual virtues. An examination of the five listed above, however, will
provide sufficient support for the claim that good questioning contributes to the
development of several of the individual intellectual virtues and, thereby, contributes
to the formation of intellectually virtuous character as a whole.4
I begin with the intellectual virtue of attentiveness. This virtue has not received
widespread attention among virtue epistemologists to date, but education practitioners
nonetheless typically view it as an important ingredient of classroom learning. The student
who is attentive to the teacher, subject matter, or class discussion is more likely to learn
and engage in the discussion or task, than the student who is not. Attentiveness both
sustains and focuses inquiry. For these reasons, attentiveness is included among the nine
Master Virtues at the Intellectual Virtues Academy, a unique charter school in Long
Beach, California, established by Jason Baehr. The school explicitly aims to educate for
intellectually virtuous character, with the nine Master Virtues incorporated into individual
lessons and across the school curriculum. In his discussion of attentiveness,
identifies three key features of the virtue: the attentive person is (1) ?present? when
learning, (2) listens, and (3) ?is quick to notice and is capable of giving sustained attention
to important details? (p. 95, emphasis original). According to Baehr?s characterisation
then, virtuous attentiveness in the classroom is not merely about ?paying attention?, to
what the teacher is saying. Over and above this, attentiveness is about actively engaging
with and carefully attending to the details of one?s environment, or the subject matter
under consideration, in order to pick out the details that matter in a given context. In this
way, the attentive person aids her own learning and advances her inquiries.
This feature of virtuous attentiveness is shared by the intellectual skill of good
questioning. In order to be a good questioner, a person must act competently in order to
elicit worthwhile information. As such, good questioning requires a person to pay close
attention to the details of her informational environment in order to discern which
information is worth eliciting and which is not. In this way, good questioning enables a person to
effectively navigate her informational environment in order to access the information that
4 I am aiming for breadth in order to illustrate the significance of good questioning for the formation of
intellectually virtuous character, and so I will not attempt to offer a detailed discussion of each of the individual
virtues. Nonetheless, the following should provide a sense of how each of these intellectual virtues can
manifest as good questioning, and so provide support for the general case. A more detailed examination of
good questioning and the individual intellectual virtues would, I believe, be valuable in future work, if the
general case proves compelling. In addition, in aiming for breadth, I am not hereby arguing for a unity thesis
regarding the intellectual virtues, based on the role that good questioning plays in relation to each of the
individual virtues. The following may, however, provide the basis for such a thesis. Again, future work could
explore the prospects for this, if the case below proves compelling.
she needs or wants. It is this aspect of good questioning that makes it a form of virtuous
attentiveness, when performed under appropriate virtue-relevant conditions and with
virtuous motivations. Imagine, for example, a student struggling with a mathematical equation.
By encouraging the student to frame and articulate a question that picks out the information
he needs in order to move beyond whatever difficulty he is having, his teacher invites him to
actively engage with the mathematical equation and attend to the details of the problem and
its solution. He must do this, at least to some degree, in order to frame and articulate a
question that will competently target the information that he needs. In other words, he must
do this in order to ask a good question. It is precisely in attempting to formulate a good
question, then, that the student encounters an opportunity to exercise virtuous attentiveness.
To be clear, the invitation to engage in good questioning merely provides an opportunity for
exercising virtuous attentiveness. The student may still fail to have virtuous motivations and
so fail to exhibit the virtue. Nonetheless, being encouraged to formulate a good question (not
just any question) presents an opportunity for virtuous attentiveness that may otherwise not
have existed because it requires the student to attend closely to the details of the problem that
he has encountered and its solution. Once he has done this, and granting him virtuous
motivations for doing so, he can be congratulated, not only on asking a good question, but
also on asking an attentive one. In common scenarios like this, good questioning is itself a
form of virtuous attentiveness. Educating for the intellectual skill of good questioning,
thereby, provides opportunities for students to exhibit, practice, and refine the intellectual
virtue of attentiveness.5
4.2 Intellectual Autonomy
Second, we turn to intellectual autonomy. As with attentiveness, intellectual autonomy
can be regarded as an important ingredient of classroom learning. The intellectually
autonomous person exercises her own will and judgement with respect to her intellectual
pursuits. The student who does so plausibly aids her learning by identifying for herself
what is required in her particular circumstances to, for example, pursue a line of inquiry
or solve a problem. In this way, she avoids irrelevant or unnecessary information, and/or
inefficient approaches, and at the same time, becomes less reliant on others to advance
her inquiries. Intellectual autonomy both directs inquiry and empowers the inquirer. As
another of the nine Master Virtues at the Intellectual Virtues Academy,
discusses intellectual autonomy, commenting, ?Intellectual autonomy is a willingness
and ability to think for oneself? (p. 70). In a similar vein,
Roberts and Wood (2007)
contend that intellectual autonomy is exemplified by:
the student or researcher who is able to work on his own, where working on his
own involves a wise dependence, a willingness and ability to tap the intelligence
and knowledge of others as needed (p. 258).
This latter captures the sense in which the intellectually autonomous person not only
engages in some form of independent thinking, but also draws on the resources and
abilities of others, in an appropriate manner, in order to support her thinking.
5 A similar case can be made for the intellectual virtues of rigour, intellectual carefulness, and intellectual
In the classroom, intellectual autonomy can be observed in students who take the views
or ideas of others on board before thinking through a problem for themselves, as well as
those who contribute their own solutions, rather than deferring to the solutions of other
members of the class, or the teacher. Less overtly, the intellectually autonomous student
may be one who simply reflects on a subject matter or thinks through a classmate?s
solution to a problem, before assenting or corroborating. This intellectually autonomous
attitude is also manifested by the student who engages in good questioning. Good
questioning requires a person to determine which information in her environment is worth
eliciting and which is not. Doing so gives her a degree of control over the information that
she takes on board and the information that she avoids or ignores, empowering her to
direct her own intellectual pursuits according to her will and judgement. Thus, the good
questioner actively determines which information she needs or wants rather than passively
and indiscriminately absorbing whatever information is presented.
Return to the student struggling with a mathematical equation. Once again, his teacher
can encourage him to frame and articulate a question which picks out the information that
he needs in order to move beyond whatever difficulty he is having. In doing so, his teacher
invites him to focus on the problem and its solution himself, rather than, say, simply
providing him with the solution outright. In this way, the student is given an opportunity to
exercise his own will and judgement, determining the information that he already has and
the information that he needs, and establishing the best way to pursue the latter: he is
invited to think it through for himself. The student must do this in order to frame and
articulate a question that will competently target the information that he needs. He must do
this in order to ask a good question. It is precisely in attempting to formulate a good
question, then, that the student encounters an opportunity to exercise his intellectual
autonomy. As before, the student may still fail to exhibit intellectual autonomy.
Nonetheless, being encouraged to formulate a good question (not just any question) presents an
opportunity for the exercise of this virtue that may otherwise not have existed because it
requires the student to actively engage with the problem that he has encountered. In doing
so, he can be congratulated on coming up with a means of finding the solution (or at least
attempting to do so) himself, even if this ultimately involves relying on the resources and
abilities of others to support his inquiry. In common scenarios like this, good questioning
is itself a form of intellectual autonomy. Indeed, it is arguably a paradigmatic form of the
virtue. Educating for the intellectual skill of good questioning, thereby, provides students
with the opportunity to exhibit, practice, and refine the virtue of intellectual autonomy.
4.3 Intellectual Humility
Intellectual humility has received notable attention from virtue epistemologists in recent
(Roberts and Wood 2007; Hazlett 2012; Kidd 2015; Whitcomb et al. 2017)
others, two prominent contrasting characterisations of the virtue have been put forward by
Roberts and Wood (2007) and Dennis
Whitcomb et al. (2017)
. These accounts differ on the
question of whether intellectual humility is best understood as an absence of vices,
specifically, according to Roberts and Wood, the vices of pride, or the presence of a
particular ability, namely, the ability to recognise and ?own? one?s intellectual limitations,
as per Whitcomb et al. I am inclined to favour the latter account, which more obviously
incorporates the need for the exercise of skill?if a person fails to recognise and own their
intellectual limitations, then they cannot be considered intellectually humble. Whichever
account one favours, however, it is not hard to appreciate the close relationship between
intellectual humility and good questioning. At a basic level, questioning requires a person to
recognise that she is lacking some information that she needs or wants and act in order to
elicit it. Good questioning requires a person to recognise that the information she is missing
is worthwhile and act competently in order to elicit it. It is this combination of recognition
and action that aligns good questioning with the limits-owning account of intellectual
humility. The good questioner must recognise and ?own? (to use the limits-owning
terminology) an important gap in her knowledge or understanding. Doing so will often, perhaps
typically, amount to intellectual humility. This is especially apparent given that, for the most
part, we are operating under a system that values knowing things highly. Knowledge is, after
all, power, as Francis Bacon?s (1597) famous Enlightenment adage boldly states.
Questioning, however, requires a person to identify precisely what it is that she does not
yet know. Good questioning requires a person to identify what it is that she does not yet
know, recognise that it is worth knowing, and attempt to find it out. Moreover, given that
questioning is, in essence, a social practice, good questioning will frequently require a
person to openly and publicly expose the fact that she does not know something that she
needs or wants to know, in her attempt to find it out. In any number of situations where there
exists a real or perceived expectation that one already does know this or that piece of
information, exposing the fact that one does not, by asking a question, can exhibit
This relationship between good questioning and intellectual humility is particularly clear
in the classroom. Rightly or wrongly, students often feel under pressure to have the ?right
answers? at their immediate disposal and can be especially unwilling to expose the fact that
they do not know or understand something. The student struggling with a mathematical
equation, for example, may be unwilling to admit, either to himself or to others, that he is
struggling. He may be suffering from a degree of arrogance or pride, and so he fail to notice
that his struggle is resulting from his own lack of information or ability. In such a case, the
teacher can, as before, encourage the student to frame and articulate a question that picks out
the information he needs in order to move beyond whatever difficulty he is having. In doing
so, she encourages him to both actively contemplate and consciously expose the fact that he
is lacking some information, knowledge, or ability: she encourages him to own his
intellectual limitations. She indicates, moreover, that doing so is expected, even
commendable, and will be beneficial. In order to frame and articulate a good question, the student must
acknowledge and expose the fact that he is lacking something that he needs, and act in order
to acquire it: he must own his intellectual limitations. It is precisely in attempting to
formulate a good question, then, that the student encounters an opportunity to exercise
intellectual humility. Under the appropriate virtue-relevant conditions and assuming virtuous
motivations, he can be congratulated on his willingness to recognise and own his intellectual
limitations and so on his exercise of intellectual humility. In scenarios like this, good
questioning is itself a form of intellectual humility. Educating for the intellectual skill of
good questioning, thereby, provides students with the opportunity to exhibit, practice, and
refine the virtue of intellectual humility.6
6 A similar, albeit in some respects, distinct case can, I think, be made for the intellectual virtue of
4.4 Intellectual Courage
The virtue of intellectual courage is, in many respects, closely related to the virtue of
intellectual humility. James Montmarquet, in his early influential essay ?Epistemic
Virtue? (1987), identifies intellectual courage as a class of virtues, which includes
prominently a ?willingness to examine, and even actively seek out, evidence that would
refute one?s own hypotheses? (p. 484). This feature of intellectual courage is not
dissimilar to the limits-owning account of intellectual humility developed by
et al. (2017)
Roberts and Wood (2007)
provide one of the most in-depth discussions of
intellectual courage in the virtue epistemology literature. They characterise intellectual
courage as ?a power to resist or overcome fears that tend to disrupt one?s intellectual
functioning? (p. 234). The fear of exposing one?s intellectual limitations, to oneself, or,
especially, to others, can easily be counted as just such a fear. In some cases, then, it
may be precisely in virtue of exercising intellectual humility that a person also exercises
intellectual courage. Not only does a person exhibit intellectual humility by recognising
and exposing the fact that she is lacking the information that she needs or wants in a
given situation, but she also, at least sometimes, simultaneously challenges a real or
perceived stigma associated with her lacking of that information. She exposes the fact
that she does not know when doing so feels threatening or difficult in some way. Doing
so exhibits a degree of intellectual courage.
Again, this relationship between good questioning and intellectual courage is
particularly clear in the classroom. The student struggling with a mathematical equation,
for example, rather than suffering from arrogance or pride, may feel embarrassed or
even ashamed that he is unable to solve the problem without help. An experience such
as this can be anxiety-inducing, diminishing a student?s confidence in their ability or
more general self-esteem. Of course, that will not always be the case, but most people
who have either taught or been taught in a classroom will likely recognise this
experience from their own or another?s perspective. By encouraging the student to
frame and articulate a question which picks out the information that he needs in order to
move beyond whatever difficulty he is having, his teacher provides a supportive
environment in which the student can overcome any fears, anxiety, or stigma he is
experiencing. If the student is indeed experiencing these things, then he must overcome
them, at least to some degree, in order to frame and articulate a good question, which
will, by its nature, expose the fact that he is struggling. It is precisely by asking a good
question, then, that the student encounters an opportunity to exercise intellectual
courage. In scenarios like this, good questioning is itself a form of intellectual courage.
As with the previous three virtues, educating for the intellectual skill of good
questioning, thereby, provides students with the opportunity to exhibit, practice, and
refine the virtue of intellectual courage.
Of all the intellectual virtues, inquisitiveness bears the closest relationship to the
intellectual skill of good questioning. I argue elsewhere that good questioning is, in
fact, a defining feature of virtuous inquisitiveness
. As such, one cannot
be virtuously inquisitive without engaging in good questioning. It is the skill of good
questioning, moreover, that distinguishes virtuous from non-virtuous inquisitiveness.
One can think of many everyday instances of the latter. A colleague who regularly asks
probing questions about one?s personal life during board meetings cannot be considered
virtuously inquisitive, even though he plausibly satisfies a non-virtuous attribution of
inquisitiveness. He is not engaging in good questioning because he is failing to
competently elicit worthwhile information: he is attempting to elicit the wrong kind
of information, at the wrong time and place. The virtuously inquisitive person, by
contrast, competently elicits worthwhile information. Good questioning is a
requirement of virtuous inquisitiveness. As such, the intellectual skill of good questioning is
not only partly constitutive of virtuous of inquisitiveness in some cases, it is in fact
necessary and integral to exercising the virtue in all cases.
Given the integral role that good questioning plays in the exercise of
virtuous inquisitiveness, the case in support of educating for good questioning
is particularly clear. It is only by educating for good questioning that one can
begin to cultivate the intellectual virtue of inquisitiveness. One may, of course,
regularly encounter a natural, non-virtuous inquisitiveness in the classroom or
wider world. Indeed, this is often the case with young children. However,
intellectual virtue requires the exercise of intellectual skill. As such, the
intellectual virtue of inquisitiveness cannot merely arise from the persistent asking
of questions or even from a characteristic motivation to do so. Rather, it arises
from a characteristic motivation to engage in good questioning. This is the
intellectual skill required of the virtuously inquisitive person. Simply by
educating for this intellectual skill, then, one achieves a crucial part of the task of
cultivating the intellectual virtue of inquisitiveness given that good questioning
is what distinguishes between virtuous and non-virtuous instances of
The student struggling with a mathematical equation can only exhibit
virtuous inquisitiveness, about the problem or its solution say, by attempting to
frame and articulate a good question. If he does not attempt to engage in good
questioning, then he will not even be a candidate for virtuous inquisitiveness
(although he may be a candidate for non-virtuous inquisitiveness). By
encouraging the student to engage in good questioning, his teacher encourages him to
develop an intellectual skill integral to the exercise of virtuous inquisitiveness.
He must engage in good questioning in order to do so. What remains, for him
to develop the virtue proper, is a characteristic motivation to employ the skill
under the appropriate virtue-relevant conditions. This is required, in addition to
good questioning, in order for the student to exercise the intellectual virtue of
inquisitiveness. It is perhaps plausible that by educating for good questioning,
one does begin to inspire or cultivate the motivational component of
inquisitiveness. If a student is encouraged to identify worthwhile information, which is
significant and relevant to her aims and context, it is plausible that the very
process of doing so would generate a kind of inherent interest in the
information. In any case, educating for good questioning is an essential component of
educating for virtuous inquisitiveness. It is precisely by being encouraged to
ask a good question, then, that the student encounters an opportunity to
exercise virtuous inquisitiveness. Educating for the intellectual skill of good
questioning, thereby, provides students with the opportunity to exhibit, practice,
and refine the intellectual virtue of inquisitiveness.
5 What Is Left to Do?
I have argued that educating for the intellectual skill of good questioning both
stimulates intellectually virtuous inquiry and contributes to the development of
(at least) the intellectual virtues of attentiveness, intellectual autonomy,
intellectual humility, intellectual courage, and inquisitiveness. In these respects,
educating for good questioning can serve as a valuable tool for intellectual
character education. I have not addressed the question of how we can educate
for good questioning in this paper. That remains a distinct and challenging
undertaking for future research. Rather, my aim has been to present a central
line of argument in defence of the claim that we should educate for good
questioning: good questioning plays an important role in the formation of an
individual?s intellectual character. The significance of this extends far beyond
the purely veritistic aim of increasing an individual?s stock of true beliefs. An
individual?s intellectual character encompasses their motivation to engage in
intellectual pursuits and the manner in which they conduct themselves during
intellectual activities, such as public discussion and debate, alongside many
other characterological facets. Educating for the intellectual skill of good
questioning constitutes one means of cultivating intellectually virtuous character.
The task of cultivating intellectually virtuous character, however, will not have
been achieved merely by educating for the intellectual skill of good
questioning, even if one were to do so successfully. At least, two significant
further challenges present themselves.
Firstly, there are numerous ways in which each of the individual intellectual virtues can
and do manifest that do not involve or rely on good questioning (with the exception of
virtuous inquisitiveness). The attentive person may exercise the virtue by listening
carefully in order to extract the information that she needs or wants in order to pursue
her line of inquiry. The intellectually humble person may exercise humility by recognising
a particular intellectual skill that she lacks in order to achieve a task and allowing someone
else to complete it for her. The intellectually courageous person may exercise her courage
by asserting an answer, rather than by asking a question. The claim in this paper is not that
good questioning is the only form that any of the intellectual virtues can take, or even that
it is the primary, or most significant form that they take. Indeed, if a person only ever
expressed the intellectual virtues discussed above in the form of good questioning and did
not take opportunities to express them in other ways, we would have cause to withhold the
attribution of intellectual virtue. They may, perhaps, be deemed an intellectually virtuous
questioner, but that is not all there is to being intellectually virtuous. In addition to
educating for good questioning, then, a wide range of other skills, both intellectual and
non-intellectual, that contribute to the formation of intellectually virtuous character should
be cultivated. Skills such as listening, articulation, collaboration, and tact will be required
of the intellectually virtuous student. Identifying these skills and their role in the formation
of intellectual character is a significant task for intellectual character education.
Nonetheless, what is powerful about good questioning as a tool for intellectual character education
is both the distinctive role that it plays in the initiation and maintenance of intellectually
virtuous inquiry and the fact that it is a form that many, if not all, of the intellectual virtues
take at one time or another. As such, it provides a rich resource for cultivating the
intellectual virtues, often simultaneously, through intellectually virtuous inquiry.
Secondly, as noted throughout the discussion, educating for the intellectual skill of
good questioning does not amount to educating for intellectually virtuous motivations.
Indeed, as we have seen, it is the lack of this motivational component that, in part,
distinguishes the skills from the virtues. The motivational component, however, is
required in order to cultivate intellectually virtuous character. This highlights a key issue
associated with educating for skills, namely, that a student may become highly skilled at a
particular task, but remain entirely unmotivated to employ their skill in order to achieve
that task. A student may become highly skilled at solving mathematical equations, for
example, but demonstrate no significant interest or motivation to do so. Similarly, a
student may become a skilled questioner, through training and practice in the classroom,
but fail to recognise or harness opportunities to use that skill in the wider world. If so, one
may have, in a narrow sense, succeeded in educating for the skill of good questioning, but
failed to pass on any of the educational benefits of doing so to the student. A student could,
therefore, learn how to be a good questioner but be disinclined or feel unable to use that
skill, just like the skilled pianist who no longer plays. Alternatively, they may employ the
skill of good questioning for non-virtuous motivations, like the honest man motivated
purely by financial gain. In each case, the student will fail to exhibit intellectual virtue in
the form of good questioning (even when they are engaged in good questioning). In
addition to educating for good questioning, then, intellectual character education requires
instilling the basic motivation driving intellectually virtuous inquiry. Elsewhere
, I have suggested that this basic motivation is very close to, if not the same as,
virtuous curiosity and have suggested, in outline, a programme for educating for virtuous
curiosity. However, the goal of instilling, nurturing, or cultivating intellectually virtuous
motivations remains perhaps the most daunting task facing the intellectual character
education movement. With that said, it bears repeating that the argument in this paper is
not that one educates for intellectually virtuous character only by educating for good
questioning. Rather, the claim is that educating for good questioning is a valuable tool that
can be used, alongside other tools and practices, in order to cultivate intellectually virtuous
character. Insofar as the cultivation of intellectually virtuous character is a desirable
educational objective, we should educate for good questioning.
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Conflict of Interest The author declares that they have no conflict of interest.
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