Questions Over Answers

AMBQshifting-conversations-logoIt’s not unusual for someone to raise a hand in the middle of a workshop we’re doing and say “I get these changes and shifts, but what do I do about it in my school?” Or something along those lines. Like most in education, we want answers. Lingering questions about change or uncertainty, it seems, cause us discomfort.

It’s not surprising. We’re an industry focused on answers. If you don’t believe that, ask your students. Better yet, ask my kids. When it comes to school, they are in constant search for the “right” answer, usually at the expense of interesting, complex questions.

But there’s a compelling argument these days that schools should be much more about questions than answers, especially now that answers are everywhere.

I haven’t come across a better source for thinking about the importance of questions than a new book by Warren Berger titled A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. It’s not focused on education per se, but it still may the best book I’ve read this year in terms of rethinking leadership in schools.

What’s the premise? It can be summed up by what is probably my favorite quote in the book, one from Joi Ito, the head of the MIT Media Lab:

In a time when so much of what we know is subject to revision or obsolescence, the comfortable expert must go back to being a restless learner.

In other words, our emphasis on knowledge building in schools may actually be a detriment when so much of what we teach our students has a shorter and shorter shelf life. In this moment, as Berger writes, “If we think of “questions” and “answers” as stocks on the market, then we could say that, in this current environment, “questions are rising in value while answers are declining.”

Despite a rhetorical move toward inquiry, critical thinking, curiosity, creativity and the like, most schools and classrooms still have not fundamentally moved toward de-emphasizing that which is easy to measure. Curriculum and assessments are focused on the answerable. Anyone have an assessment for how well our students ask questions?

That, in fact, may be a great starting point for our own inquiry process as laid out in the book. Start with “Why?” In a world that is in constant transition, why aren’t we more focused on developing students as questioners? Then, consider “What if?” What might be some ways to bring more questions into classrooms? Finally, consider “How?” Take the best ideas an create a process to try them out.

And here’s the other challenge for leaders: when things are in constant flux, we can’t wait to implement the “right” answer because by the time we find it, it may not be “right” any longer. Being willing to act on a less than completely formed idea is the foundation of innovation and change. As Berger says, questioning without action is just philosophy. Schools that are committed to rethinking practice are also committed to trying things and iterating through them. It’s about institutional learning through action.

The most difficult part of all, not surprisingly, is moving to a culture of inquiry throughout the organization. We’re writing a lot about culture and vision at EML because we’re convinced they are the foundations of meaningful, sustainable change in schools.  Berger writes “The most important thing business leaders must do today is to be the ‘chief question-asker’ for their organization,” and that holds true for educational leaders as well. What are your big questions? What traditional practices are you looking at and asking “Why?” What questions are you sharing with your teachers, your students, and your community? What questions keep you up at night?

From birth to five years old, our kids ask almost 40,000 questions. Research has shown that some 4-year olds can ask almost 400 questions per day. They are curious investigators who are trying to figure out their worlds.

Then, they go to school, where questions come from teachers, where answers are right or wrong, and where their own questions are not valued, or in some cases, tolerated. Why?

I’ll end with my second favorite quote from the book, from one of my personal favorite authors, John Seely Brown:

If you don’t have that disposition to question, you’re going to fear change. But if you’re comfortable questioning, experimenting, connecting things—then change is something that becomes an adventure. And if you can see it as an adventure, then you’re off and running.

In this world of constant, tumultuous change, that’s what I want for my own kids. You?

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