I am currently listening to the audio book A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger. I’m only in the third chapter, and the implications for education and my own work are already mind-blowing. I have spoken in presentations of the importance of giving students opportunities to ask questions and, very importantly, of teaching them how to ask questions, but Berger is placing even greater urgency on me to get the message out. Berger has conducted extensive research into the importance of asking good questions and the implications for both business/industry and education. He defines a “beautiful question” as
“ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”
Put simply, questioning why things are the way the are or how things might be done differently has the potential to lead to real inquiry, which in turn leads to real problem solving. Teaching our students to ask these kinds of questions encourages creativity, innovation, and critical thinking.
Unfortunately, this is severely lacking in our schools today, and it has been for more than a century. Schools as they largely exist now are relics of an industrial age, which Berger explains emphasized rote, quiet, routine-filled activities designed to produce factory workers performing static, routine-filled jobs. Many of us in education have known this for years. I read a report just this week by a UK think tank that espoused filling students brains with as many facts as possible, a so-called “classic education.” This report was just 2 years old, and it was painful to read. Berger challenges the reader to ask what the purpose of school is. Is it to impart countless facts and figures as fast as possible, in order to produce citizens that can regurgitate information on a state-mandated test? Or, is it to create lifelong, self-driven learners capable of solving the problems of tomorrow? In a world where routine, assembly-line work is outsourced to countries with the cheapest labor, it should be obvious that our competitive advantage will be maintained by supporting the latter.
Technology has given our students unimaginable access to the knowledge, thinkers, and experiences of the world. However, if we fail to give them the opportunities to explore these resources based upon their own questions, we cannot expect them to be the citizens of tomorrow who will tackle poverty, sustainable energy, disease, crime, and so on. Berger talks extensively about the way schools and, often, businesses, discourage questions, because they slow things down or deviate from agendas established by those in authority. We value correct answers, not well-crafted questions. It is imperative that we change this, and we can start in simple ways:
- Recognize a “Question of the Day” from a student. Celebrate questions at least as much as answers.
- Designate group discussion times to explore questions about a topic before, during, and after a unit of study.
- Embrace the fact that students will ask questions for which we don’t have the answers, and get to work helping them find them.
- Teach students how to ask “Why…”, “How…”, and “Is it possible…” types of questions.
- Strip out some of the pre-determined instructions and questions from class activities. Let students’ own questions and curiosities drive them.
- Engage students in solving real-life problems, not just covering the textbook or curriculum.
- Utilize technology’s unique capabilities for creativity, inquiry, collaboration, and exploration.
- Give up control. Start by designating small blocks of time to regularly let kids share and then investigate what fills them with questions and wonder.
As I stated at the outset, I’ve barely scratched the cover of this fascinating book. I’m sure there will be more posts forthcoming on the ideas it inspires. If you are looking for a good read for the beach or poolside this summer, I highly recommend this one. I truly think it will inspire and challenge you to examine the role of questioning in your own classrooms or even with your kids in your own homes and inspire changes that will make each places of excited, engaged inquiry.