The Thoughtful Question

The Importance of the Thoughtful Question

It is said that the only bad question is the one that goes unasked. This is true in everyday life and even more prevalent when speaking with students. 

Asking students the right questions can open doors to innovation and growth. 


David Potash, President of Wilbur Wright College, City Colleges of Chicago, stresses that real questions are critical to the human educational experience. President Potash suggests that we learn from each other by giving those in the higher education community spaces to collaborate and make better decisions together.

In this episode of The Higher Edge, we discuss the importance of asking questions and how they shape us, higher education’s role in supporting America’s Latino students, and how to measure student success beyond job placement. 

The Importance of Questions 

Questions come in all shapes and sizes. Small and large, simple and confusing, surface level and deep. Each question is a portal to understanding and learning more about a specific subject, person, or concept.

It’s difficult to see how much of an impact questions have on our lives when we’re surrounded by them on a daily basis. For David Potash, questions are something he thinks about every day. 

“I think that we learn in large part by asking questions. We learn by posing things, pondering things, trying to sort stuff out, and that usually comes not from directives but from kind of posing to the things that we don't know, that we are unsure of.”

In his blog, The Digital Quad, President Potash discusses the importance of asking questions. - Not just any type of questions, but good questions, real questions, and questions that shape the way we think and interact with others. 

“I use the blog space, as I do a lot of my day-to-day with my job, to really think about how we respond or work in a collaborative environment and educational environment, which is inherently about learning to make things better - better for our students, and better for ourselves.”

One way he believes we can better higher education is to include and listen to more voices. That way we have more questions being asked and more opportunities to learn. 

“There's usually more than one way to effect change, and there're usually multiple voices. The more voices you have around the table, the better off you're going to be in terms of your decision making.

So that leads me in large part to think quite a bit about questions. Questions about intentionality, questions about what we know, what we don't know, questions about how we act, and how we bring different people to the table.”

With more voices around the table, more questions are being asked and more solutions are being brainstormed. A problem that many colleges and universities still face today is knowing how to keep students engaged. 

For President Potash, it's about understanding the students - asking the right questions to better understand how they learn and what they might be struggling with.

“There's no one way to increase student engagement. Even for one student. This might work this month, but next month they might need something different.

You gotta be tailored a little bit, and you don't necessarily always get the approval or structure to change this assignment - but the more you pay attention to people and [ask] questions, the more [prepared you’ll be to] make that adjustment.”

Real questions, deep questions, and thought-provoking questions can help professors understand their students better and keep them engaged in the classroom. These kinds of questions can also lead colleges and universities to find ways to better foster student success at their institution. 

Questions are the building blocks of learning, not only for the students but for colleges and universities, too.

Excellencia in Education

Recently President Potash has been working with Excellencia in Education, an organization that promotes a trust-based approach to Latino student success. Working alongside Deborah Santiago has allowed Potash to learn more about America’s Latino students and how higher education is able to support them in their journeys.

“I have learned so much from working with Excellencia in Education. They have challenged me, supported me, provided information, structure, opportunities, and a data-informed way of really asking hard questions of academics, institutions and broader structures.

There are a growing number of Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) in this country. And as Hispanics are the largest growing demographic in the US, how higher education (and in particular public higher education) makes a commitment to these people (how we follow through on that promise, how that challenges and upsets) just makes us rethink a lot of existing higher ed structures.”

These kinds of hard questions really allow colleges and universities to better understand their student bodies and their Latino student populations. Not only do they help restructure academics to better suit each kind of student, but also to better promote overall student success.

“It's extraordinarily important for the students, their families and communities. Also, standing on a little bit of a soapbox here, it's really really important for the country. What's our commitment and why is that happening?”

This focus on commitment is what really drives President Potash to understand the lives of students - not only how they learn and study on campus, but also what they do after they leave campus. 

“They [Excellencia in Education] brought a number of institutions together and they really engaged us in an iterative process where all of us had expressed a commitment to doing more and paying more attention to Latino student success. 

What are our obligations? What do we know? What don't we know? What should we know? I'm cautious about using the term ‘should’ usually in my arguments, but I think at this point it's applicable as a sense of intentionality about the lives of our students after they leave our campuses.” 

Not only is it important for colleges and universities to understand how to promote student success while their students are still learning but also to understand how these students will benefit from their education after they graduate. 

“We have obligations if we're going to take someone's time and money, - that's a commitment we have. We have to follow up. We have to be really certain that if we say you learn A, B and C, [then] D is going to be your outcome. That's something that I think we, all of us in higher education, can do a better job with.

It's a big issue for all of us in the community college world because so many of the students use us as stepping stones to longer journeys, and we don't have really good data about it.”

Measuring Student Success Beyond Job Placement

Success is not only measured by how much money someone makes or how high up the company ladder they climb, but also by how meaningful their work is for themselves and for those around them. 

For President Potash, success is determined by the individual definition of success, which differs from person to person. 

“Many of us in higher education, I think, got too caught up in a short-term economic value proposition that, ‘Oh, if I go to college, I will get x job and make x amount of money.’

There's this old saying that [goes], ‘You measure what matters to you, and what matters to you is the thing you want to measure.’”

It is important to be financially stable in one's own career, but it is also just as important to enjoy what you are doing.

“It's really important to have a good [job/career] and to be able to live a solid, middle-class lifestyle with healthcare benefits, good school, good communities. All of the rest.

I also think that a lot of people really want meaning in their lives, and they want to contribute. When I talk to students, regardless of the institution, there's (for the vast majority) a real sense of people wanting to do something that matters with their life.”

Having a meaning and purpose to do something that matters in life is something that many students want in their careers after graduation. Colleges and universities that are able to foster successful students that go into careers that provide meaning is something all institutions should strive for. 

“It's not like everybody wants to become a finance multimillionaire. We've got lots of people who want to teach, do social work, be nurses, work in criminal justice, or study invertebrates and those kinds of things.

In terms of measuring happiness, if we care about that, we'll probably do a better job in figuring out how to measure it and maybe come up with some cool ways of showing that investing in people is really one of the best investments we can make.”

Discover More When You Listen to the Podcast!

Interested in learning more about David Potash, the importance of questions, how higher education is supporting Latino students, or even more ways to measure student success after graduation? 

Listen to our interview with David Potash on The Higher Edge podcast on Apple Music, Spotify or on our website.


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