To Question Is The Answer

You don’t learn unless you question. — Joi Ito


We are all awash in an ever-growing sea of data.  A 2010 Economist magazine article points out:

When the Sloan Digital Sky Survey started work in 2000, its telescope in New Mexico collected more data in its first few weeks than had been amassed in the entire history of astronomy. Now, a decade later, its archive contains a whopping 140 terabytes of information. A successor, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, due to come on stream in Chile in 2016, will acquire that quantity of data every five days.  Such astronomical amounts of information can be found closer to Earth too. Walmart, the retail giant, handles more than 1m customer transactions every hour, feeding databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes—the equivalent of 167 times the books in America’s Library of Congress. Facebook, a social-networking website, is home to 40 billion photos.

An overwhelming majority of this data is now stored and is accessible on the Internet.  Today students at all levels expect to find information online.  I suggest that perhaps it has become less important to know how to access information than it is to know what questions to ask — the “What if’s”.  We’ve all heard at least one story about how some techno-nerd like Steve Jobs made a jillion dollars by asking and then effectively answering a What if? question.  Let me insert another disclaimer:  I am not suggesting that each of us should or need to become techno-nerd jillionaires.  There are far more fulfilling motives for learning here.  But there is great deal of benefit to be gained by learning how to generate good What if? questions.

Our education system is just beginning to adapt to address how best to prepare students to live and work in this environment.  Seth Godin points out, “Our grandfathers and great grandfathers built schools to train people to have a lifetime of productive labor as part of the industrialized economy. And it worked.”  Schools were organized on industrial factory models.  Above all they prized rote memorization of basic knowledge.  That era’s work environment found questioners and their questions as threatening and irritating — questions could challenge the way things were and were often viewed as insubordination.  The education literature of the early part of the 20th century opined that the purpose of public education was to inculcate in students obedience and a tolerance for boredom.

Warren Berger provides an interesting example of where curiosity and questioning can lead:

During the World War II years, Percy Spencer, a self-taught engineer leading the power tube division at defense contractor Raytheon, focused his efforts on the magnetron–the core tube that made radars so powerful they enabled U. S. bombers to spot periscopes of German submarines.  Standing next to a magnetron one day, Spencer noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had melted.  He then wondered, could the energy from the radio waves be used to actually cook food?  He placed some popcorn kernels near the tube and soon was munching the world’s first microwave popcorn.  In 1947, Raytheon put the first microwave ovens on the market–but it took another twenty years before the appliances were small enough to fit on a countertop.  [A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger]

The applicability of question-focused learning environments is obvious.  Integrating more questions into our classrooms doesn’t require new technology or budget increases – just time and commitment.

Comment (1)

  1. Don

    You uncover an interesting switch in the role of education from that of providing the answer to that of defining the question. Presumably that results, at least in part, from the vast storehouse of information available at out fingertips. That certainly applies to the cognitive domain but how about the support for affective and psychomotor domains?

    I was also struck by your comment that our grandfathers wanted their offspring to have a lifetime of work in the industrialized economy, and the workplace found questions and questioners “threatening and irritating”. It seems that the reverse is true today, fathers and grandfathers want their children to have a lifetime of work in the knowledge industry, a work place that wants people who are questioners and questioning. it’s education that finds questioners “threatening and irritating.

    So, in terms of education, the first question that I would like to explore is “What do people need in the way of education?


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *