Developing Great Questioners: A New Dimension for Teaching & Parenting

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Keynote speech Developing Great Questioners

What is your “beautiful question”? What is a “beautiful” question?

These questions are the conclusion, and the point, of this discussion of the importance of questions by Warren Berger, who coined the term “questionologist” to describe his unique work.

“The world has some pretty significant challenges ahead of us,” he began. “We’re going to need problem solvers. We’re going to need big thinkers. We’re going to need lifelong learners. We’re going to need bold creators. And we’re going to need great questioners.”

Developing these great questioners has become the emphasis of Pioneer Academics, says Founder and Director Matthew Jaskol, who was inspired by Berger’s work to reimagine Pioneer’s mission as “providing the most deserving young people the opportunity to engage with their questions and the complex problems that face our society and our world.” Jaskol invited Berger to be the keynote speaker for the first Co-curricular Summit because he was sure “he would inspire you to look past your perceived limitations.”

Berger, as “questionologist,” says, “Questioning may be one of the most important, and yet at the same time underutilized, tools that we have as human beings.” We tend to think answers are the most important thing and to jump to looking for them, without appreciating how critical the questions are.

He offers this definition: “Questioning is the ability to organize our thinking around what we don’t know.” Thinking about the unknown, he points out, is the foundation of innovation and creativity. He cites as examples some of the best-known startups of recent decades: Netflix, Airbnb, Uber, the Internet. Each began with a question. “How could I stay in someone’s spare room if all the hotels are booked?” “How could someone in the neighborhood give me a lift if a taxi isn’t convenient?”

This is hardly new. “The founders of the Olympics,” he said, asked, “What if we could get countries to compete on the playing field instead of the battlefield?” But the attention we are paying to questions is new. Berger says that a common saying in Silicon Valley now is, “Questions are the new answers.”

It follows that if questions are so important, then producing “great questioners” is essential. With the goal of studying how questioners think, Berger went in search of “the all-time greatest questioner.” He considered such great and diverse questioners as Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Marie Curie, Socrates, and Albert Einstein, who “believed you had to find the right question if you were going to solve a problem, because otherwise you would go down the wrong track.”

However, the “ultimate questioning machine,” and a model to use in developing great questioners, is a typical four-year-old girl who typically asks more than three hundred questions a day! “At that age, kids’ brains are expanding. They’re in total absorption and learning mode. The synapses are firing in their brain, and they’re asking questions because they are naturally using this tool we are given as human beings for learning. They instinctively know that the way to get information, the way to learn, is by asking lots and lots of questions.”

And then, very soon, “children’s questioning tends to fall off a cliff.” Berger quotes Neil Postman: “Children enter school as question marks, and they leave as periods.”

Understanding how this happens, and how to reverse it, is a first step in developing great questioners. It is “a very complicated problem,” since there are a number of factors working against questioning. Schools are one factor, as they provide information, answers, rather than encouraging questioning. A child’s own increasing maturity and knowledge base is another: as children acquire information, they stop asking questions about things they think they already know. Fear—fear of being wrong or sounding stupid or speaking out of turn—also inhibits questioning. In school, time can be a factor, since a certain amount of material has to be covered. Culture can also be a problem, if questions are not welcomed in one’s cultural environment.

So the question becomes, “How do we model good questioning? How do we create a culture where people feel comfortable asking questions?” We strengthen our questioning ability in the same way we strengthen a muscle, Berger says—through exercise. Building activities and habits that encourage questioning, in the way Pioneer challenges scholars to work on their questions, is a foundation for a lifetime of asking the kinds of questions that can change the world—the questions that help us create new things, that help us dig deep into issues through critical thinking, that “light up the dark” of the unknown.

Each of us has within ourselves what Berger calls a “beautiful question,” a question we are passionate about, a question that can therefore change the world in some way, from tiny to large. “What is yours?”, he asks.

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