Why It’s Imperative to Teach Students How to Question as the Ultimate Survival Skill

| March 14, 2014 | 29 Comments
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By Warren Berger

Friday March 14 is the 135th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birthday, a good time to think about the importance of asking questions. This was a big theme for Einstein, who told us, “The important thing is not to stop questioning,” while also urging us to question everything and “Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Einstein understood that questioning is critical to learning and solving problems. If he were alive today, Einstein would see a world in which questioning has become more important than ever before. But he might also be left wondering why, for the most part, we still don’t encourage questioning or teach it to our children.

Let’s start with the growing importance of questioning. Perhaps the best evidence of this can be seen in today’s high-tech world. The leaders of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and a number of other leading companies are known as consummate questioners who constantly ask, Why should we settle for this? and What if we try something different? A number of the top executives in Silicon Valley were educated in Montessori schools, where their curiosity was given room to roam at a young age.

This has served them well in today’s dynamic tech market—because their well-honed questioning skills help them analyze and solve problems, adapt to change, identify fresh opportunities, and lead companies in new directions. Indeed, asking the right question is often the starting point of innovation. In writing my book, A More Beautiful Question, I traced the origins of many breakthrough inventions and “disruptive” business start-ups—everything from the making of the cell phone to the birth of the internet, along with the launches of the companies Netflix, Nest, and Dropbox—and found that each began with a person pursuing an insightful question no one else was asking at the time. The questions led to answers that, eventually, have led to billion-dollar paydays. It has been said that, in Silicon Valley today, “questions are the new answers.”

Are our schools doing a good job of preparing students for a world where questioning is a survival skill?

If anything, the ability to ask insightful questions will be even more critical tomorrow than it is today. As change continues to accelerate, tomorrow’s leaders—and the larger workforce—will have to keep learning, updating and adapting what they know, inventing and re-inventing their own jobs and careers through constant, ongoing inquiry.

Given all of this, it’s worth asking: Are our schools doing a good job of preparing students for a world where questioning is a survival skill? Data on student question-asking, gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics, is not encouraging. It shows question-asking declines steadily throughout the school years [PDF of the report]. Interestingly, a separate study from Gallup shows that “student engagement” is dropping at about the same alarming rate as questioning.

A number of factors may contribute to a decline in questioning-asking. As kids mature and begin to “know” more, it’s understandable they might feel less need to ask. But Harvard University education professor Paul Harris points out that young children also seem to feel less safe asking questions as they move from being at home with parents to being in a classroom with a teacher and other kids.

It doesn’t help that in many classrooms, there’s little encouragement—and almost no teaching—of questioning. Tony Wagner, an expert in residence at Harvard’s Innovation Lab (and a former schoolteacher himself), reports that in his observation of classrooms, the message from teachers is, “‘We don’t have time for student questions—because that will take time away from the number of answers I have to cover.’” This is not to suggest teachers are happy with this situation; as one California high school teacher lamented to The New York Times, “I have so many state standards I have to teach concept-wise, it takes away time from what I find most valuable—which is to have [students] inquire about the world.”

To make matters worse, peer pressure may also be inhibiting student questioning. Jack Andraka—who, at age 16, developed a breakthrough new way to screen for cancer—is an incredibly curious young man, but even he doesn’t ask many questions in class, he told me. Andraka says the teachers at his high school aren’t particularly welcoming of his questions, and beyond that, among most students it’s seen as “uncool” to ask questions in class.

ASKING MORE QUESTIONS

There are no easy solutions to this multi-part problem, but if we want kids to question more—and as Einstein told us, the way to get to better questions is by asking more questions—then we may need to find ways to make the act of questioning both “safe” and “cool.”  The Right Question Institute (profiled on MindShift), a nonprofit group focused on teaching questioning in schools, encourages teachers to run group exercises dedicated entirely to formulating questions. RQI has observed, and teachers using the program back this up, that when you actually allow and encourage questioning in this way, students tend to be more comfortable and willing to ask questions—and some even take pride in the questions they ask.

As for making questioning cool? Here’s a thought: Teachers might try pointing out all the “cool stuff” that has resulted from questioning. Those smartphones kids love, and many of the apps on the phones? They only happened because someone was willing to question the status quo. Indeed, kids should know that the true innovators in art, music, even sports—everyone from Beyonce to that free-thinking Olympic snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg—are often those willing and able to ask “Why not?” and “What if?” You don’t have to be Einstein to understand that this aptitude for questioning is, itself, a pretty cool “app”—and one worth figuring out how to use.

Warren Berger is the author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury). On Einstein’s birthday, he invites readers to visit QuestionDay2014.com for ideas on celebrating the importance of questioning.

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  • Melissa Yoes

    A friend wrote this book based on a true story about a girl who asked Albert Einstein, “What is the most important question?” It’s a great book for kids. :) http://dcvbooks.com/Shop/show_item.asp?MainCat=4&Category=10&Item=3

  • Holly R

    Why should questioning begin in schools and not before the child comes to school? As a teacher with ten years experience, I find it terrible that ‘teaching’ questioning our world should begin at school. Young children, with their innate inquisitiveness ask “Why?” as a way of questioning their worlds and many parents nowadays, instead of engaging their children, push a device or some other form of technology (TV included) at them. Formal education should not need to ‘teach’ questioning but should be the fostering of what parents have begun at home.
    I’m sure I will be called the typical disgruntled teacher but teachers can only work with what comes to us.

    • roseba

      The article states that kids do question and home, and then gets discouraged as they get older, and placed in environments where time restraints make questioning burdensome.

    • Kathy Singerline

      I teach a Critical Thinking class in which the art of questions is a big part. My students are 6th graders and we begin with a discussion compositing how students lose the drive to question during class from kindergarten to 6th grade. In their words, “they are afraid someone will make fun, they do not want to feel dumb, they are shy, they do not want to be the only one seen as not understanding something, and my all time favorite (NOT!) the class environment does not promote questioning because either the teacher or students in the classes make it uncomfortable.”
      After years of feeling this way by 6th grade we as teachers have an obligation to re-teach these kids the value of questions and how questions drive learning. Our goal is to develop life-long learners and critical thinkers.
      One way to implement this in lessons is to have students create questions on a lesson not just answer them. Have them collaborate on the type of questions they are creating. For the most part I have discovered that they create basic knowledge questions the first time out. When this is brought to their attention, and they are exposed to higher level thing questions the become challenged to create higher level questions and are therefore critically analyzing the information and learning it in the process! It is an exciting process to observe:)

      • Holly R

        That sounds awesome! How are students assessed during your course?

    • ChipsAhoyMcCoy

      ¿Is school beneficial to kids in any way? ¿Is school the most efficient way to attain those benefits? ¿Are these benefits worth the costs and rare potential costs (bullying, school shootings, suicides)?

      Oh the uncomfortable questions, specially for someone as invested in the system as a teacher.

  • gregoryabutler

    “As change continues to accelerate, tomorrow’s leaders—and the larger workforce—will have to keep learning, updating and adapting what they know, inventing and re-inventing their own jobs and careers through constant, ongoing inquiry.”

    That sounds like babble.

    In the real world, most production, skilled, craft, service and nonsupervisory clerical workers – and most first line supervisors – are basically going to be expected to show up, work a full day, follow orders and then go home and come back the next day.

    That’s about 90% of the population.

    Asking lots of questions is frowned upon in that world

  • Matthew Murrie

    Great article. This is why TheWhatIfConference.com is pushing people to ask more questions and then do something about them. We’re bridging the gap between motivation and the ability to execute on ideas.

  • AnotherFake AcctEmail

    Actually I see a world in which people are not questioning. They hang onto their beliefs without ever really thinking about them. Some teachers even try to push their beliefs on students which is unacceptable. As long as you can support your argument is all that should matter.

  • Lisa Papas

    There is no doubt that being able to question everything is very important. However, have you ever actually seen this in practice? Try questioning vaccines or all the many very strange things on 9/11 that aren’t readily available in our bought for media, and you are labeled a “conspiracy theorist”. Our government, corporate owned media, and big corporate entities like Big Pharma and the military industrial complex which own the media and our politicians discourage any kind of questioning them. The Pentagon just loses a couple of billion dollars? Don’t question them. The President wants dictatorial powers to bypass Congress? Don’t question him- he can be trusted. When medical doctors tell you that mercury emissions and mercury in fish are hazardous to your health, but then look you in the eye and tell you that vaccines are perfectly safe- you shouldn’t question them- after all they went to medical school- they are Omnipotent Gods. This article would be a lot more impressive if it actually discussed how often adults are shut up from questioning anything substantial. For Gods Sake, we can’t even get the facts released on the Kennedy Assassination 50 years later……

  • Wizard

    I taught Chem (college and HS) for >35 years. While I always encouraged questions, some students wanted answers without having to think for themselves. THAT was actually tied to the FEAR OF BEING WRONG. Asking questions is an important mindset, true, but an important component often overlooked is that mistakes are a window to learning. “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re either lying, or doing nothing!” – that’s a quote from a construction supervisor I had (working summers between school years).
    We have beaten RISK out of our kids! They have lost the ability to deal with defeat – they try a problem once, and if they fail, you hear…”OK! I can’t do it!” There IS an answer! There IS a path! DON’T QUIT! STRUGGLE! THAT, I fear is even more important than asking questions…just sayin’

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  • The Right Question Institute

    Great post! For those interested, The Right Question Institute also offers a simple strategy that teachers can use to deliberately teach students how to ask their own questions.
    Check out this Harvard Education Press article (http://hepg.org/hel-home/issues/27_5/helarticle/teaching-students-to-ask-their-own-questions_507) outlining the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) or visit our website: http://www.rightquestion.org for more information!

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