Asking questions

In an era in which answers are available at the click of a mouse, approaches to formal education that focus on being able to recall right answers seems quaint, to be kind. Not only in a course like this, but in all forms of formal education, all the way down to pre-school, I'd argue that the key skill is learning how to ask the right question.

Curiosity in children is something that schools have become good at killing. Applying the thrust of this idea to that claim, if we accept it for the moment is why? Why does formal education discourage curiosity, questions, learning how to ask better questions?

Chuck Close in an interview1 with Joe Fig2, puts it like this:

See, I think our whole society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to [participate in] ‘problem creation’ … You know, ask yourself an interesting enough question and your attempt to find a tailor-made solution to that question will push you to a place where, pretty soon, you’ll find yourself all by your lonesome — which I think is a more interesting place to be.

There is a set of points made by Albert Einstein about questions on the A More Beautiful Question web site, a site that complements Warren Berger's recent book3.

There is quote from Berger that is worth pondering:

A recent study found the average four-year-old British girl asks her poor mum 390 questions a day; the boys that age aren’t far behind. So then, it might be said that questioning is like breathing: It’s a given, an essential and accepted part of life, and something that anyone, even a child, can do.
Yet chances are, for the rest of her life, that four-year-old girl will never again ask questions as instinctively, as imaginatively, or as freely as she does at that shining moment. Unless she is exceptional, that age is her questioning peak.

As you work through the readings, I've been nagging you to think about the questions that were being asked by the scholars and researchers. Why these questions and not others?

Now I can ask a heap of questions but this is your course and it would be good to share your questions. Often the questions that seem to you to be silly, or trivial or dumb are not at all. So don't be shy. Drop whatever questions you have into the Slack site.

As Stuart Firestein4 wrote:

Questions are more relevant than answers. Questions are bigger than answers. One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.

Edge have made questions a focus of a lot of the interplay they generate between disciplines with their annual question.

A slightly different take on asking questions is in this lovely piece by Bret Victor on explorable explanations.

And this quote from Berger:

What may be even more important is the tone of questions. Confronted with a challenge or problem, one could respond with the question Oh my God, what are we going to do? Faced with the same situation, one might ask, What if this change represents an opportunity for us? How might we make the most of the situation?

Questions of the second type, with a more positive tone, will tend to yield better answers, according to David Cooperrider, a Case Western professor who has developed a popular theory of “appreciative inquiry.” Cooperrider says that “organizations gravitate toward the questions they ask.” If the questions from leaders and managers focus more on Why are we falling behind competitors? and Who is to blame?, then the organization is more likely to end up with a culture of turf-guarding and finger-pointing. Conversely, if the questions asked tend to be more expansive and optimistic, then that will be reflected in the culture. This is true of more than companies, he maintains. Whether we’re talking about countries, communities, families, or individuals, “we all live in the world our questions create.”

And, one more provocation by Joi Ito via Berger:

Joichi Ito, the director of the esteemed MIT Media Lab, offers an interesting theory about the need for lifelong adaptation. When the world moved at a slower pace and things weren’t quite so complex, we spent the early part of life in learning mode. Then, once you became an adult, “you figured out what your job was and you repeated the same thing over and over again for the rest of your life.” Today, Ito explains, because of constant change and increased complexity, that rinse-and-repeat approach in adult life no longer works as well. In a time when so much of what we know is subject to revision or obsolescence, the comfortable expert must go back to being a restless learner.


So. What is your big question or set of questions? Drop them onto the Slack site.