The Value of Questions | September 7, 2012

The Value of Questions

Welcome. I have been looking forward to this opening week. Schools are much better places when the students are here, and I am very happy to see you all.

I have a question that I want you to consider: How old were you when you stopped asking questions for fear of sounding ignorant?

When we are young, we are natural question‐askers. Why do we lose that ability? Why is it that when we are young, we can ask questions with no inhibition whatsoever? Why is it that our questioning comes to a halt? This year I want you to tap into your four‐year‐old self and remember how to frame good questions.

When she was young, our daughter Lucinda had a particular attachment to our dog, Olie. As a three year old, she would pet him very gently and treat him like a person, and she had many questions about him. For example, she asked us "What does it feel like to be Olie?" These empathic thoughts about Olie continued, and she said that when she grew up, her goal was to know what it felt like to be a dog! She also wanted to know what it felt like to touch the sky and why the fish in the pond by our house did not die when lightening struck the water.

If you think about it, the questions that children ask are usually not pulled out of thin air. Often the young asker of questions is making observations, just as any scientist might, and posing a question that springs from the information at hand. In this way, children are like little scientists trying to find out about the world. Why do we stop this type of scientific investigation?

Maybe there are two opposing reasons why we stop asking questions. Perhaps when we get older we are less willing to expose our ignorance. On the other hand, maybe we stop asking questions because we grow more confident that we understand the world around us.

Maybe we lose our capacity to see beyond our own beliefs and to question what is worthy of being questioned. Maybe as we get older we spend less time questioning because we become dangerously more comfortable with what we think we know.

We often think of schools as places that are full of facts, knowledge, and information. Today I want you to free yourselves from the sense that our school is packed with information that you must conquer. Instead, I want you to focus on what it is that you want to learn. By discerning what you don't know, and by asking good questions, you are actively taking charge of your education ‐ you are owning it.

Asking a good question is actually quite challenging. All questions are not necessarily good ones. Some can be too broad, too amorphous, and simply unanswerable. Good questions are interesting and potentially answerable. And many of the questions that you yourselves asked when you were four were undoubtedly good questions.

A while ago my young nephew, Max, asked my mother‐in‐law on her birthday how old she was turning. She explained to him that her birthday landed on the day of President Lincoln's second inaugural speech, March 4, and that Grandpa's birthday landed on the day Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, November 19. Clearly this was too much information for my young nephew, and he pursued what he wanted to find out: "But Grandma," he replied, "how old are you?" "I am turning 72," she replied. This really threw young Max for a loop. His brow furrowed, and he asked "Did you start at 1?"

Thoughtful questions generate long conversations because people care about the answers. When you hear a good question, you are willing to spend time and energy to answer it because there is something important at stake for the listener as well as the speaker. Reflective questions inspire new ideas and new ways of thinking and lead to understanding. When you ask a good question, you are essentially challenging yourself to find out the answer.

To ask a thoughtful question, you need to do three things: you have to stop and think about what you're trying to find out; you have to consider what the person you are talking to might know, and you have

to think about what words you could use to clarify what you are trying to find out. The best questions often spring from an open mind and from a perspective that might be informed but not overly stuffed with "facts."

Believe it or not, your teachers do not necessarily have a set answer to the questions they may ask you in class. Teachers often teach because they love learning, and many of your teachers have told me how much they enjoy learning from you because you offer new perspectives that they might not have considered. When I was a junior in high school, I remember my mother coming home from a particularly engaging day of teaching history saying, "I love teaching these students because they are so much smarter than I am." As a seventeen‐year‐old, I was struck by this statement because I thought that she was pretty darn smart. She had multiple degrees; she had taught for 25 years, and she was a teacher – a grownup. Yet, she was telling me how much she learned from her students.

I know you think that in the context of school, answers are really important, and in many cases they are, but arguably questions are more vital to the life of the mind than answers. If you wield your questions with purpose and with care, you will be amazed at how empowered you will feel, how much ownership you will have of your own education and how much you will learn along the way.


"Just Ask" by Leon Neyfakh
Boston Globe
Sunday, May 20, 2012

Trusting What You're Told
By Paul Harris
Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA 2012

Ignorance How it Drives Science
By Stuart Firestein
Oxford University Press New York, NY 2012

Everything is Obvious
By Duncan J. Watts
Crown Business, Random House New York 2011

Make Just One Change
By Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana
Harvard Education Press Cambridge, MA 2011


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