What questions shall we ask?

Presently I am reading Patrick Rothfuss’ novels comprising the ‘King Killer Chronicles’, the tale of a young intellect searching for answers to a personal tragedy. Kvothe, as the main character is called, is guided by life’s events to the ‘University’ and at an early age begins his study of the ‘Arkane’, a mix of science and magic. A key figure in his study is the enigmatic Master Elodin, a ‘namer’ who is able to control many things by knowing their true name. Those who love a good story and enjoy fantasy should seek out the books and discover the complex world that Patrick Rothfuss has created, for now I am most interested in an epiphany Kvothe has while contemplating why he likes questions.


Without spoiling the story, Kvothe is asked to explain why he enjoyed the impossible questions his father would pose to him. This questioning had started with riddles but Kvothe found these too easy, so his father told him nonsensical stories and asked him to explain what they meant. He describes this to another character who views this as a cruel way to keep a child quiet, but Kvothe disagrees and responds as follows,

'It's the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer all he gains is a little fact but give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers. That way, when he finds the answers they’ll be precious to him, the harder the question, the harder we hunt, the harder we hunt the more we learn, an impossible question . . .'

At this moment in the story Kvothe understands the odd behaviour of Elodin, he sees that the Master’s desire has been to ask these impossible questions and by doing so force his students to discover new learning, to think beyond the obvious and to learn how to think. I don’t teach magic, or naming but I do most assuredly want my students to think and to be able to create new ideas. So, ‘What questions shall we ask?’

For anyone familiar with the ever-growing Internet it is clear that finding ‘little facts’ is increasingly less of a challenge. A learned person can no longer be defined or measured by the facts s/he can recall. I met recently a person who could in moments recall the key facts of almost any event in human history, her name is Siri and she lives inside my phone. It is interesting to consider the proportion of questions we ask students that could be answered by Siri and maybe in contemplating this we arrive at the answer to why so many schools prohibit the use of phones in class. Fortunately there are many questions for which Siri has no answer and conversely many questions yet unanswered.

I am often amazed by television, sadly not the content but the very idea that an image can be beamed to an antenna and appear on a screen in my living room. I know enough about how this works to recognise that I really have no understanding of the process. To me it is most interesting to consider the questions that were asked prior to its conception as a possibility. Today I can readily ask questions that will reveal how television works but at some point in time neither the answers or even the questions existed. This is the point where true innovation occurs, when an individual or team begins asking questions for which there are not answers and for which the very asking of the questions create new realms of possibility.

With two colleagues I have been studying Harvard’s ‘Making Thinking Visible’ course. Most recently we have investigated the ‘Cultural Forces’ required to promote thinking within a school. To provide our students with opportunities to think we have been contemplating the types of questions we ask. As Kvothe’s father did, we seek to ask questions that will allow our students to think. Our goal is to find those questions most central to our disciplines and then pose these in ways that will promote exploration. The challenge is to ask the questions for which the answers are most hard to find or that have not yet been found.

In asking big questions that challenge even experts in the field we play a careful balancing game. We want our students to have opportunities for complex high order thinking while also being able to experience a high degree of success. To complicate things further our students will only experience a feeling of success if it is achieved through opportunities that demand complex high order thinking. David Perkins advocates that to achieve these goals teachers look towards ‘playing junior versions of the game’. By this he means they are engaged with tasks that have genuine purpose and require complex thinking patterns but that they do so at an achievable level. Our Year Six students engage with ‘Big Ideas’ but ultimately the demands placed on their thinking and analysis by the questions we ask are not as rigorous as expected of University students dealing with the same ideas. Regardless the opportunity for even the most complex thinking is there.

Complex questions set by the teacher are all very well but how do we teach students to generate new questions? In his revised Taxonomy Benjamin Bloom places Creating at the top of the ‘thinking pyramid’ as the highest order of thinking. This needs some degree of clarification as clearly the sort of creating that went into the invention of television is not of the same magnitude that goes into a child’s artwork. Creating new knowledge and being creative are not directly equivalent terms. If we wish to promote this highest order of thinking in our students we cannot leave it to ‘happy accidents’, we will need to offer a set of strategies within a culture of creative thinking.

Using a combination of Habits of Mind, Dimensions of Learning and making Thinking Visible a small groups of teachers that I have the privilege of working with offered a set of questions and strategies to promote creative thinking. They can be used as a toolkit to guide students towards asking the right type of questions and when linked to areas of exploration that the students are passionate about offer the potential to generate amazing new ideas. They are provided below written from the learner’s perspective:


  1. Let your imagination run wild every now and then, but keep track of its ideas and make use of the best ones.
  2. First think of the obvious solutions, write them down and then discard them, now you are in the realm of the new ideas, the creative and different.
  3. Train your mind to think differently. Consider everyday things and imagine how they could be improved with a few modifications. Add something, make a part larger, replace a part with something else, combine one every day object with another.
  4. Keep a journal of your ideas and reflect on it often.
  5. Remember Edison's advice, 'Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration'. Work at making your ideas great and then work harder to turn them into that thing that changes the world.


  1. How can you transform a good idea into a truly unique idea?
  2. What inspires you? What do you find exciting? That is your starting point, now innovate.
  3. What habits of thinking have you developed? Identify the habits that are limiting your creativity and make changes.
  4. Reflect on the thinking that results in your best ideas, this is the key to repeating it.
  5. How will you evaluate the benefits of your idea?


  1. Options Explosion - Begin by listing the obvious solutions or Options. Now brainstorm all the other options, generate as many options as you can, combine ideas to create more, allow your creativity to run wild and tap into  your sense of wonderment and awe. Review the list of options and identify the ones that are most intriguing. Use the ideas generated to consider new possibilities and new solutions.
  2. Creative Questions -  A good routine for developing ideas and for training your mind to think      differently. Use it to generate creative questions to explore by following these steps:
    • 1. Pick an everyday object or topic and brainstorm a list of questions about it.       Transform some of these questions in imaginative questions such as: Select a question to imaginatively explore. Write a story, draw a picture, invent a scenario, conduct a thought experiment or dramatise a scenario 2. Reflect on your thinking and the new ideas you have generated. 3. Develop those which seem most useful.
  1. Does it Fit? -  A strategy for evaluating options by applying clear criteria. As you apply      each criteria keep the ideas that are consistently the best fit. Does the option Fit the ideal Solution? Does the option Fit the Criteria? Does the option Fit the Situation? Does the      option Fit you Personally?
Thinking Routines adapted from Harvard's 'Visible Thinking Resource Book'
More ideas for developing Habits of Mind - redlandsyear6.net

By Nigel Coutts