I have recently been working with a bunch of students helping them with their dissertation work. They are a very bright, lively, creative group who have done some very interesting stuff. But working with them reminded me of something that has puzzled me for years. They didn’t seem to know how to ask powerful questions. They asked plenty of questions about the task they had been given, including the potentially powerful question of why they had to do a dissertation at all. But the idea that questions were a way of exploring the world and opening new possibilities was something they hadn’t come across in their previous education. Questioning seemed to be confined to confirming the world.
My question is how can this be?
Anyone who has been around very young children knows that they are filled with questions, sometimes very penetrating ones. Indeed I know my experience has been that being with young children and trying to answer their questions has shown me how little I know.
So where does that curiosity and the ability to ask the questions that expose the limits of our knowledge go?
I suspect that we train our children out of that ability. Our reluctance as adults to admit there are things we don’t know or hadn’t considered means that difficult questions are met with ridicule or irritations. The fact that much of the way we operate in the world is on the basis of tacit understanding we can’t articulate is glossed and our response to questions touching on that is met by “Because I say so” or “That’s how it is”.
Then through their schooling children are bombarded by questions, which they know their teachers know the answers to. The model of asking questions becomes one of a game of matching questions to known answers. For every question there is a correct answer.
So we reach the situation where asking genuine questions becomes dangerous. A question can become a sign of ignorance of something that you should know. As a result, questions that should be asked remain unasked.
Uncertain of my sense that asking questions was a neglected art I turned to Google. The query, “The Art of asking questions” returned over eighteen hundred results, covering many different fields. This suggested that our ability to ask good questions is seen a problem that various gurus claim to be able to resolve.
Wading through the results I came across an abstract of a lecture by Professor James Wilkinson “Learning to Fish: Students, Teachers, and Lifelong Learning”, which resonated strongly. Particularly when he says:
“The art of asking questions, of being curious and mentally alive, informs research and, indeed, all creative activities. It is also susceptible to being taught. Education for lifelong learning needs to take as a primary goal education in asking questions.”
In a piece on managing creativity I wrote some years ago I said:
” The implied questions ‘why?’ and ‘why not?’ underlie all creative activity.
The ‘why?’ is a questioning of how things are. The ‘why not?’ is a questioning of how things might be. Both carry the idea of the world as a dynamic field of possibilities rather than something fixed or static.
Cultivating curiosity, by encouraging the hunger for new experiences and new ideas and by provoking deep questions and different frames of reference is at the heart of successfully managing the creative process.”
The two questions this leaves me with is how can we reverse the process where we train our children out of asking the kind of questions that reveal the world to be more mysterious and more full of new possibilities than we usually acknowledge? And where are the spaces we could begin this process?