A Learning system that values questions not answers

At first, I thought about calling this a curriculum, but that comes with baggage—too prescriptive. Since I am trying to think in systems, I’ll just call it a learning system.

Much ink has flowed trying to answer “Why do children ask fewer questions as they get older?” and the answer is probably the same as the sister query “why do children become less creative as they get older?” In his TED talk—the most watched talk in the history of TED—the late Ken Robinson holds schools responsible for this loss. He puts forth that we are “educated out of creativity” because the entire K-12 system is designed as a precursor to entry into university or the world of work. (In his talk, he makes close references to curiosity as well.) In this system, some areas of learning (called subjects) are more highly valued than others (Math versus Dance, for example), which means that opportunities for creativity diminish for many, particularly within a culture of high-stakes exams. Following this thought, because the K-12 experience is supposed to be preparation for university or employment, it also serves as a means of selection and must therefore provide some kind of measure to hierarchize students—both have limited resources and therefore seats or openings. This is from where the meritocracy trap is borne; the hierarchization of students based on grades that constitute selection criteria for life after K-12. 

You don’t have to dig too deeply to understand why we are educated out of curiosity and creativity. As Harvard’s Tony Wagner puts it, “Somehow, we’ve defined the goal of schooling as enabling you to have more ‘right answers’ than the person next to you. And we penalize incorrect answers. And we do this at a pace… where we don’t have time for extraneous questions.”* There has to be some consistency in the process so that those who carry out the triage of students (the assessor, that is, teachers, admissions officers, employers) have a basis for comparison in a world where there are so many complexities and nuances. This consistency takes the form not only of marks and scores, but also of framing what the outputs should look like; what are the criteria for success. These criteria are what Tony Wagner calls the “right answers;” they are the kinds of outputs the assessor is looking for. Assessors place a weight on what kinds of answers they’re looking for, which naturally narrows the scope of creativity.

This is a problem embedded in measurement, especially when using grades as symbols to represent levels of achievement. 

Curiosity and creativity are the victims of this culture of looking for the “right answer” (and representing this value with a symbol), itself used to hierarchize students in order to facilitate the selection process.

We can’t get away from this selection process so long as we operate in a context of limited resources. There are only a finite amount of jobs at each company or spaces at physical university. Selection happens all the time. There is even a selection process when you go the movie theater, one based on first come, first served**. So long as we have clean air in abundance, there is no selection process about who can breathe because there is enough to go around, there is no limit on that resource (for now). But for everything else, there is a selection process and that is built on some sort of achievement (even if that means getting to the queue first). Maybe we need to re-consider achievement.

Going back to curiosity, what if we turned all of this on its head? We can’t get rid of selection processes, but what if instead of an education system based on “show what you know,” which can discourage curiosity and creativity because of the right answer syndrome, what if we built a learning system that conceived achievement as the quality of questions the learner asks, not what they are asked to know?

This system would be based on the process of learning. 

For everything we know, there was once a time prior to knowing when we didn’t know. When we are born, we are blank canvases†. We make meaning out of the experiences we have, which come in an infinite amount of forms (e.g. touching a hot stove, sitting through a lecture, sewing a cape from watching a YouTube video). We do not exist independently of the context in which these experiences exist, and our learning is shaped by our interactions within the systems’ parts (and we are parts too). We learn through our interactions with the world, but we must be open to learning.

This is where curiosity and creativity come in, when we explore and act upon the system in which we exist, of which we are a part. We cannot be curious or creative if there are no parts with which to interact.

Learning happens as a result of the interactions with different parts of a system and when that interaction (the experience) changes our behavior in another experience. If there is no change in behavior, there is no learning††. Sometimes, it takes longer for change to happen. That’s ok.

Whether we engage in an experience actively or whether by accident, we make sense of the world (learn) by processing the event in which we took part, in which we interacted with the different parts of the system. If I touch a hot stove, I will only stop touching hot stoves once I make the connection that when my hand touches the metal of a stove in use, it will cause me pain. The first time I touch the stove, I will try to make sense of the experience by connecting the sequence of events and possibilities. This is questioning. “What happened for my hand to feel this way?” It might not be a question posed explicitly; it might happen in a fraction of a second, but that moment when I try to make sense of an experience is questioning. Learning as a process takes place when we try to make sense of the world through questioning and the answers to our questions (how we make meaning) guide our future behaviors. The change in behaviors is the learning itself. If I decide the reason my hand hurts is because the stove is white, I probably won’t touch any more white stoves, but I’ll have to find new meaning in my experience when I burn my hand on a grey stove.

Again, questions don’t have to be posed explicitly. They can appear in a fraction of a second, unnoticed. That’s why they exist as curiosity, as creativity. They can happen at an unconscious level. It’s about wanting to find out, making sense of the world, whether we are mindful of this or not, and whether we are open to this or not.

You hear a noise, you turn your head. You don’t always ask yourself what that was explicitly, but you turn your head out of curiosity, and that’s because you asked a question, perhaps one unnoticed.

Questions guide learning, they are the vehicle for learning. Curiosity and creativity are the more abstract dispositions that determine the quantity and quality of questions. So long as we have one more question to ask, one more thread to pull, we are open to learning. Whether explicit or unnoticed, if we are born as a blank canvas, we have the potential for learning when the sum of our questions is greater than the sum of our answers:

Potential for learning exists when ∑q>∑a

If we don’t have one more question than we have answers, we stop learning because the process of answering cannot take place and therefore we do not have the potential to make meaning of our world. Learning starts with questions. Descartes most likely began with dubito ergo sum (I doubt therefore I am) because he had to doubt (question) before he could conclude cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am).

Of course, the potential for learning does not guarantee an outcome because if we don’t find an answer to the question, there is no learning. Again, though, questions are the vehicle (process), not the destination (outcome). Sometimes though, your journey might take you to places you didn’t know existed and you find answers to new sets of questions.

What if we created an education system that really did foster lifelong learning by valuing and celebrating questions not answers? 

Maybe we could build an education system where curiosity and creativity are the success criteria.

What if there was a way to nurture, value, and assess the quality of questions posed and perhaps design a plan, a map, or whatever to figure out how to obtain an answer? The quality of the question would be based on prior knowledge, skills, and experience. I would expect a doctor to have questions that are more sophisticated (higher quality) than a first year biology student because of knowledge, skills, and experience (so like with any assessment, we’d have to calibrate what a quality question looks like for a first year biology student). 

And here’s the rub. This would do away with the idea that there are right and wrong answers, that answers remain unchanging. The creation of a culture (through the learning system) that emphasizes questions over answers is one that constantly re-thinks its positions. It is one that is self-reflective, critical, open-minded, fluid. One should always re-consider our opinions, thoughts, actions, and place in the world. I am not going out on much of a limb when I write that many of the problems in our society are due to people doubling down on their entrenched views and opinions, based on answers they see as immovable.

(I do believe there are certain things that must be taught without a process of questioning, particularly considering the interconnectedness of all living things. We need to think about whether we should impart a set of ethics in school, whether we should re-value the tension between traditional ways and progress, whether we are better off making meaning individually or whether we should share a common meaning. This is for another discussion.)

The power of this learning system of questions is in how it would foster curiosity and creativity, because if a learner stops asking questions, they stop learning. Every time they come up with an (impermanent?) answer to a question, if they have maintained curiosity and creativity, they should springboard onto another question as a result of wanting to find out more, as a result of interest and intrinsic motivation to go deeper. If there are no more questions, we’ve reached a dead end. That can be ok too, but then let’s try to understand why and move on. The system would check itself based on the quality and quantity of questions asked, based on curiosity and creativity.

There is a way to prevent education from killing curiosity and creativity. It comes through turning the system on its head. No more competition to provide the right or best answer, no more selection processes that place fences around what is acceptable and what is not. Let’s open up learning by placing value on the questions we pose.

This might just be the shift in framework that changes everything.

*Quoted in Berger, Warren. A More Beautiful Question. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) p. 46.

** This is where the digital world will turn everything upside down because there are no barriers to watching movies on Netflix, once the infrastructure is laid out and if you have the ability to pay. What will happen to university selection processes if courses are given online, with no incremental costs to adding new students, therefore no need to have selection criteria other than for university prestige and branding purposes?

† Though there are genetic and hereditary sets of knowledge and one could also point to the natural intelligence and instincts that connect us with the world, particularly the natural world, so there is more complexity to this, but this is not the space.

†† Having the same behavior as before and reflecting on the fact that no change was needed, wanted, or warranted is a form of consolidation of learning.

2 thoughts on “A Learning system that values questions not answers

  1. I have at times asked students why they do not ask questions, why they don’t raise their hands in curiosity to answer a question with a question. The reply is more often than not because they are “scared” of getting it wrong, or of asking a “silly” question. I then ask how can a question be silly if you genuinely don’t know the answer? Surely we must encourage our young people to feel courageous and valued for their curiosity and the desire to want to ask, to want to know. So perhaps what we also need to teach is to value others stages of knowledge. That we do not all know or learn the same things at the same time. To respect the asking of the question, to celebrate the asking of the question and the discovery that comes along with it.

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    1. Gosh so much wisdom and clarity there. And you highlight the importance of context and space as the facilitators or repressors of questioning. It starts with this idea of valuing different things, I think and as you wrote (I love!) celebration of wonder and curiosity! Maybe we will even get to know each other better as members of society.

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