At the heart of learning are the questions to which we do not yet know the answers and the journey to the questions we have not yet asked. Such simple truths and yet understandings that can have fundamental consequences for approach to learning and growth.
We learn via the questions that we ask and we expand our collective understanding of the worlds in which we live through the questions that we discover. Human knowledge is a historic journey of wonderings that have sparked imaginations and a desire to understand. If there is one thing that separates humans from other species it is our deep seated desire to understand why things are the way that they are, natural curiosity coupled with the capacity and tools to seek answers.
Our natural curiosity is however a fragile thing. Much has been written about the decline of our propensity to ask questions with some sources stating that we peak at age four (Right Question Institute). In a ‘More Beautiful Question’ Warren Berger explores this in detail and shows that a confluence of factors including immersion in an environment that feeds learners with facts, a focus on right answers not questions and even low tolerance of questions from educators are at play. Look at the curriculum of any major educational system and you find the knowledge that students are expected to learn as a result of their schooling. From curriculum content come lessons aimed at translating that prescribed subject matter into learner knowledge and the scope for questions is curtailed. Time poor teachers have little time to cover questions not directly related to the curriculum and even questions related to the content are unlikely to be given much importance as the course materials will by design ensure students encounter the answers whether they are asked or not.
The net result is that by the time we are adults questioning has largely been trained out of us. This results in adults who are inhibited inquirers and often poor learners. We have the skills required to find and communicate answers. We are effective problem solvers and may even be able to do so collaboratively. We are less skilled at asking and finding questions and this has some serious consequences as we move away from traditional work places where very few people were required to do the creative work of identifying the new questions which would innovate the industry.
Today we are told that we all need to be life-long learners. The difficulty is that if we rely on learning that is driven by questions which are set for us our learning will depend on the presence of ‘others’; others who possess the wisdom and skills we need to master. The great difficulty in an increasingly connected world is that if the knowledge or skill already exists within the system it can be sought out and applied from the source. What is wanted in such a networked world is the capacity to find questions which have not yet been asked, the 'What if' and ‘How might’ questions that lead to new insights and new opportunities.
Failure is the new darling of innovation but the unrestrained embrace of questions is perhaps more important. If we want to uncover new ways of doing things, then we must be tolerant of questions and we must reward those who ask them. Unfortunately, many organisations send clear messages that questions are not wanted. Questions shine a light on what is not working, expose weaknesses and miscommunication, and consume time. Questions require us to think and thinking is something that we do not always want to do, particularly if we believe it is our job to have answers. Questions require a cultural shift.
If we are to embrace the concept of professional learning communities, we must be prepared to place learning at the centre of all we do. If we accept that learning is powered by questions and the growth opportunities for business begin with the questions we have not yet asked, we begin to move towards the culture we need. While we seek to maintain power through the control of knowledge and the dissemination of wisdom from above we will miss the opportunities made possible by beautiful questions.
By Nigel Coutts