Asking Good Questions

CAIS piloted a commitment this year to address all of the CAIS Partnership Conferences. So in the past few weeks, I have been on the road to Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, addressing five groups: Junior and Middle School Heads, Admissions Directors, Assistant Heads, University Counsellors, and Business Officers). At each gathering, I focused on questions. I often say that I am in the business of asking good questions – be it accreditation, professional development or research questions. (In fact, the Board Chair at West Island College in Calgary told his Board that in his years with CAIS, he felt that asking good questions was one of the main roles of the national office.)

I asked Junior, Middle and Senior School Directors to consider this question: what is special about your program? As all schools are increasingly competitive, everyone talks about the challenges of admissions. But the challenge of admissions is partly a challenge of program. All of our CAIS schools offer the provincial curriculum. But what ties our CAIS schools together nationally is an ongoing commitment to improvement and an ongoing commitment to focus on what is above and beyond the minimum requirements in each province. I call it the CAIS school stretch. (Incidentally, in my CAIS school visits, I see the best Division Leaders focusing like a laser beam on program, specifically, on differentiating their program from their competition.)

Our Governance Research project is also asking important questions. Our CAIS schools depend on Boards who recognize that their focus must be on today’s children’s children. In order to ensure that agendas include time for rich conversations, our National Standards include a focus on Generative Discussions. So, as part of our research, we asked, ‘What are the Generative Questions that Boards have discussed and should discuss?’ Here are some of the questions that CAIS Boards have told us they are discussing:

  1. What are useful KPIs for a school?
  2. What makes an effective board?
  3. What skills and characteristics does a grad need to be effective in today’s and tomorrow’s world?
  4. Is there an upper limit to tuition levels?
  5. What is the relationship between tuition levels and accessibility in our community and what are the implications for schools?
  6. What will the supply of really good educators look like over the next 20 years and what are the implications for schools?
  7. What can a board do for a school that no one else can?
  8. What is the desirable balance between institutional memory and fresh blood?
  9. What will the best schools look like in ten years and why?
  10. What will the big themes in education be over the next ten to twenty years?

I was able to ask questions of students last week while touring three Montreal schools. At Yechiva Yavne, a K to 11 school founded in 1992 by the Sephardic community of Montreal where they offer both Orthodox Jewish and general studies, I was once again reminded of the value of questions. I asked students, ‘What is special about your school?’ Two classes stood out for me.

A grade one class of boys came to life. Every hand shot up to answer my question. First answer? The Torah. Next? Writing class…Our Rabbi…prayer time… Are you as surprised as I was? It was only after five or six more answers that I heard ‘Recess’ and the class erupted with laughter. Now I have never taught this age group, so I can only reference my son at that age who once told me, “You don’t understand boys – we like recess and gym.” The energy in this class was infectious.

It was in a small grade ten English class that the girls answered my question with two words: our teachers. I asked a follow-up question, naturally, to better understand what made their teachers unique. One girl quietly spoke, “Our teachers speak with the heart. And when anyone speaks from the heart, you listen, and you learn more.”

I’m glad I asked the question.

And I will end with another: What other questions should we ask of our Directors, Boards and Students?

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