As children, we ask “Why?” a lot. It is a part of childhood, that special time when the many forces acting upon our cognitive development converge around a singular desire to ask “Why”. It becomes the central focus of our conversational style, an incessant exclamation into the void which tests the patience of any nearby adult. We seem to develop an innate ability to spot those in our environment who we can recruit into our “Why” centric world, those who have not yet mastered the art of terminating our pattern of questions with a well-timed “because”. At the heart of it though, and despite the many road trips it has ruined, our desire to know why is a marker of the innate human propensity towards curiosity. There is so much to know and seemingly so little time to learn it all. The world presents us with a flood of new things, new interactions (with knowledge and people) and new puzzles for us to wonder about.
When we enter formal schooling the pace of our questioning declines. Warren Berger is rather keen on questions, his book “A More Beautiful Question” reveals the power of questions to solve problems and encourages us to ask more. He describes the decline in our questioning and cites research by Richard Saul Wurman who shares that "Preschool kids ask their parents an average of 100 questions a day. By middle school, they’ve basically stopped asking questions. Around this time, the article points out, student motivation and engagement plummets. Which raises an interesting question: Have the kids stopped asking questions because they’ve lost interest?” Middle school is around the time when we turn more frequently to another form of the “Why” question, what David Perkins refers to as the “Uppity Question - Why do I have to learn that?”. It might be that the traditional response to this question is what has turned students away from asking questions - “You need to know it for the test”. If the only things that seem to be valued are those in the test and we do not naturally have a desire to understand them (thus the “Why must I learn that?) why would we ask probing questions? Why would we want to dig deeper into a topic we have no interest in?
When we are presented with an engaging topic, when we can see the relevance of what we are learning, “Why” becomes a very powerful question. By asking “Why” we begin to dig beneath the surface and guide our learning towards the issues at the heart of the topic. Facts are interesting but studying facts alone will only ever take us so far. Exploring the “Why” of the facts opens new avenues for rich understandings. But students do not naturally ask “Why?”, they often need a teacher or mentor to ask the “Why?” question for them and of them.
Recently our students explored a collection of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Their challenge was to uncover and define a part of the problem underlying the selected goal. I joined one group of students who had chosen to tackle the goal of “Zero Hunger”. Their initial response was typical amongst the groups who had selected this goal; “people are hungry, we will give them food”. I listened to them for a while and realised they had only developed a surface understanding of the problem. I asked them what the problem is and then started on the “Whys”. Why are people hungry? Why don’t they have food? Why can’t the food get in? Why do they need food to be delivered? Why do they not grow food? Slowly we dug down into what they knew about the problem, we quickly added to that pool of knowledge but now we were making connections and developing an understanding as we researched. One simple question led them to a solution that targeted the root issues and would be potentially much more sustainable.
The technique of asking “Five Whys?” is a powerful tool for learning, both for children and adults. It is also confronting and handled badly and without forewarning can border on aggression. When I first use “Five Whys?” with a class I always talk through the plan with them first. I tell them that my aim is to test their knowledge and guide them towards a richer, deeper understanding of the topic. I tell them they might not like this. They always appreciate the process afterwards and we always include time to reflect on that process. Some of the students start to include “Why” in their responses.
For organisations asking “Why?” has a particular power when it is turned to the matter of the way things have always been done here. Asking “Why do we do things that way?” can reveal the habits and patterns of behaviour we have become tied to but that no longer truly serve our purposes. Looking at these long held beliefs and asking “Why do we do that?” can take courage and is only likely to occur within an organisational culture that encourages it. A good measure of the health of an organisation might be to observe how long it takes new staff to shift away from asking “Why” questions that strike at the heart of our traditional patterns of action.
You cannot consider the “Why” question without giving mention to the work of Simon Sinek. In his book “Start with Why” he writes "Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. When I say WHY, I don’t mean to make money— that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?” We are reminded that unless we understand why we do what we do and why it matters we are likely to lose track of what matters most. We must strive to always be guided towards our “Why” and avoid actions that take us away from this. As Simon Sinek points out the truly successful people and organisations are those who use their “Why” as their north star and never lose sight of it.
And, so we come back to the writing of Warren Berger and his guidance towards “A More Beautiful Question”. Asking “Why?” is a great starting point but it only takes us as far as understanding. We need tools that take us from understanding to action. According to Berger "A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.” A pattern of three questions can take us from our “Why” to that actionable question we are seeking. From our “Why”, we ask “How might . . .” and we finish with “What if . . .”. This is a simple pattern of questions that students can learn to ask and is a pattern we have used with students as they develop ideas for their Personal Passion Projects. It is simply exemplified by the story of Air BnB. The pattern of questions the founders of Air BnB asked probably went like this: Why can we not get a bed in a crowded city, even though there are lots of empty beds? How high we connect people who need a bed with people e who have a spare bed? and finally “What if we create an app that lets people with a spare bed make it available to people who need a bed and in doing so become the conduit that sleepy travelers and people with too much room need?”.
The power of “Why” deserves greater respect if we are to reap its benefits. The next time I am accosted by a preschooler full of “Why” questions I might try a more encouraging approach in the hope that this child’s incessant curiosity might just result in the next big breakthrough the world needs.
By Nigel Coutts