Developing questions

Spend time developing questions, especially questions that support the exploration of key ideas for the artwork. Plan to have two to three questions or activities per stop. When you develop a great question, keep it for future tours!

Philip R. Goodwin, 1882–1935, A ‘Bear’ Chance, 1907, oil on canvas, Gift of the National Biscuit Company
Figure 21
Philip R. Goodwin, 1882–1935, A ‘Bear’ Chance, 1907, oil on canvas, Gift of the National Biscuit Company View in Mia’s collection

When developing questions, avoid making assumptions about visitors and their lives. For example, questions connected to travel or vacation experiences assume that all visitors have enough money and free time to take a vacation. Be cautious of making assumptions about family and homes as well, especially when leading school tours. For example, while looking at the Cream of Wheat advertisement in Philip R. Goodwin’s A “Bear” Chance (View in Mia’s collection) (fig. 21), you might ask: “What kind of breakfast did your mom or dad make you this morning?” With that question, you assume that the child was able to eat breakfast, eat at home, and that a parent takes care of the child.

An easy fix for these types of questions is to turn them to opinion questions. For example, instead of asking “How many of you have been to Rome or Venice?” ask “How many of you would enjoy a trip to Rome or Venice?” Those visitors who have traveled may choose to speak of their experiences, but at the same time, those who have not may share an opinion in the discussion. For the previous example, ask instead: “If you could choose what you have for breakfast, what would it be?”

Open-ended questions

Open-ended questions accommodate the divergent perspectives of your tour group. To encourage learners to make observations or to generate ideas, open-ended questions must have several appropriate answers, such as “How would you describe this person?” If you ask a question that has a brief and predictable answer, the question is close-ended, such as “Who is this person?” Closed-ended questions often ask visitors to recall factual information; they do not stimulate reflective thinking. Open-ended questions encourage multiple answers, involving more of your group and leading to greater engagement during the tour.

An inquiry strategy outlined in The Great Books Foundation training manual 1 has been adapted for discussing works of art using three basic categories of questions: description, interpretation, and association.

Description questions

Descriptive questions can be answered by looking at the work of art. They often involve the subject matter or the visual elements, such as color, line, or shape.

These questions and appropriate follow-up questions encourage tour participants to make observations and support them with visual evidence. Some descriptive questions encourage viewers to describe the subject or action of an artwork, while others ask the viewers to analyze or describe how the elements are organized within the artwork.

Gustave Courbet, 1819–77, Deer in the Forest, 1868, oil on canvas, Gift of James J. Hill
Figure 22
Gustave Courbet, 1819–77, Deer in the Forest, 1868, oil on canvas, Gift of James J. Hill View in Mia’s collection


  • How would you describe the figures in this work?
  • Describe the animals you see.
  • If you could touch this sculpture, how might it feel? What about the texture makes you say that?
  • What do you think the weather is like in this scene? What in the picture makes you think so?

    Interpretation questions

    Interpretive questions help tour participants explore the meanings of artworks. They require viewers to offer opinions that can be upheld by observable evidence. These questions offer the possibility for divergent opinions so you should remain open to all responses.


  • How do you think the artist felt about this woman? What do you see that makes you say that? Why do you think the artist chose to place her in the back of this scene?
  • Why do you think the artist left so many open spaces in the sculpture? Why might the artist have chosen wood instead of stone or metal?
  • How do you think the artist feels about New York City? What do you see that makes you say “noisy and fast”?

  • Association questions

    Associative questions ask viewers to consider to what extent an artist’s viewpoint or a work of art has application to their own opinions, lives, and/or times. Associative questions can be fun and provocative and help people relate artworks to everyday life. However, avoid overusing this type of question since they can get group members (especially young visitors) far away from the artwork itself. Typically, you ask these after the artwork has been thoroughly explored and various interpretations have been discussed. However, sometimes an associative question at the start of discussion can help spark a discussion (e.g., What about this Chinese Reception Hall is similar to living rooms today? What is different?).


  • If you could take this sculpture with you, where would you display it? Why?
  • What do you like most about this painting? Least? Why?
  • If you lived in this house, what kinds of activities would you do in this room?
  • What kind of animal would you choose to represent you?
  • Notes

    1. Training Manual, Great Books Foundation