If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.

W. Edwards Deming

Chidi asked her students to write about the cookery club for her donor, to send alongside their photographs. She asked them to explain what they liked about the youth club, why it was important to them, and why they were grateful. 

The girls didn’t really know what to write. Nearly all of them said a version of: “I enjoy the cookery club. I have learnt to cook new things. My mum is happy when I bring home something she hasn’t tried before. I like being with my friends. Ms Chidi is kind. I am grateful to you for making this possible for me”. 

Chidi was disappointed. She had hoped that they would talk about how school was hard for them, how they had learnt about budgeting and were able to cook more nutritious meals at home. She thought they would talk about the skills they had learnt, or how this was the only activity open to girls their age in the whole neighbourhood. Without it, they would simply be at home, doing chores. 

Then she realised that she would have answered the questions in a similar way if she was in their place. The club girls didn’t see themselves as poor. They all came from similar backgrounds – experiencing the daily challenges that so many young women in Africa face. Their situations were normal to them. They loved learning to cook new things because most of the time they would eat the same thing – often rice and beans – every day. Making their mum happy was the most important thing they felt they could do. 

Chidi realised that asking the right questions is important to getting feedback from the schoolgirls and the different stakeholders in order to gauge the impact the youth club had had on them, and what could be done to improve it or enable her to better achieve her goals.

When we ask young women to tell us about their experience with our youth project, whether it is an interview, video, or evaluation form, we ask questions to understand what they think and how our youth work changes their outlook, behaviour and immediate circumstances.  

Asking questions is an art form, and researchers and interviewers spend years refining their technique or understanding the sort of information that can be gathered from a type of question. When we ask questions, we are simply trying to find out how our work impacts a young woman’s life. We want to hear about change – in her daily life, her sense of purpose, and her aspirations for the future. We want to hear about what she has achieved – for herself, her family, and others. We want to know why these changes are important. Because she was failing at school before? Because her family circumstances are challenging? Because she has a disability?

If you return to the questions from the previous section, what did 16-year-old you, or the young woman you work with, say? I expect she said something like:  

  • I like seeing my friends 
  • I hope to do well in school and get a good job 
  • I like learning new things that I couldn’t do at home or at school

These are all good things, but they aren’t exciting. They tell us nothing about you, your dreams, why you are so keen to succeed, and what you would do if you did succeed. It tells us nothing about the challenges that you are overcoming, or have overcome. You could be one of the millions of 16-year-olds in Africa – or across the whole world.

Youth Workers Asking Wise Questions

This is where wise questions come in. 

  • How do we ask wise questions – not the ones that would appear to lead to the information we are looking for, but ones that lead to the insights we need?  
  • How do we ask questions in a way that compliments the young women we work with, boosts their confidence, and makes them see that their story – their success – is important? 

Young Women Giving Authentic answers  

  • Young people, especially when our cultures encourage deference to elders, may be scared to answer honestly. They may want to tell us what they think we want to hear.  
  • Anonymity can be the best way of achieving this – using written forms that the girls can leave somewhere, and know that you genuinely want their insights. Use a tool like google forms if you want true anonymity (if young people can access the forms) – no one will recognise their handwriting!  
  • Allow girls to answer in a way that makes them feel comfortable, for example,  speaking in their mother tongue, with a friend present, or in an environment where they feel safe. Be prepared to answer questions yourself – this is how trust is built! 
  • Respect each girl’s time, so that they feel valued and that she and her story are valuable to you.
  • Don’t interrupt. Listen to the full answer to your question. Ask with the intention of wanting to hear the answer that is given.
  • Echo the respondent’s answer back to her. Use something in the answer to frame your next question. Even if this may take you slightly off your planned path, it shows that you’re listening and helps to have a natural transition.

Reflection Questions

  1. Looking at the section above, how do you make it easy for girls to answer your questions authentically and confidently?
  2. How do you think you and your team could improve in this?

You might also be interested in 

When Measuring Impact, Ask the Right Questions | Forbes (forbes.com)

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