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Ask a beautiful question

By Anne Stevenson

“What’s the most powerful question you know?” Children ask hundreds of questions a day as soon as they can speak. But in grade school, questioning “drops off a cliff,” according to data from the 2009 U.S. Nations Report Card.

Why does this innate skill fall away as we move through school and into careers?

If curiosity and the ability to ask good questions are essential to innovation and problem solving, why aren't we putting more emphasis on fostering and utilizing this essential, innate ability? How would you answer this question? This week is Question Week 2015, a week (and a great site!) dedicated to inspiring more of us to become good question-askers!

Various thought leaders in business, media, and psychology respond to this question on a fascinating website I recently viewed. Journalist and author Warren Berger has zeroed in on the power of questioning in our lives. He has interviewed and studied hundreds of the world's leading innovators, designers, and creative thinkers to analyze how they ask fundamental questions, solve problems, and create new possibilities. In his book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, Berger challenges us to ask the questions that can lead to actions, change and innovation. (The title comes from a quote by poet E. E. Cummings: “Always the beautiful answer/who asks a more beautiful question”).

He suggests that a questioner can move forward on almost any problem or challenge by first trying to understand it (Why is this a problem?); then imagining possible solutions (What if I came at the problem this way, or that way?); and finally trying to figure out practical ways to turn those what-if ideas and possibilities into realities (How might I actually begin to make this happen?)

Is this sequence of Why/What If/How might we… something you might practice and model in your work with youth, volunteer groups, or colleagues? Berger offers a wide variety of tools and resources to support this practice of questioning. If you’d like to read more about why kids are master questioners, check out Curious kids: What makes them question so much? 

I hope you’ll be challenged by this two-minute video about the value of curiosity and questioning: Rubik’s cube: A question, waiting to be answered. It is a call to nurture the next generation of “scientists, engineers, artists, designers, inventors, or something no one’s ever been before… but you can bet we’re going to need,” (It honors Budapest-based educator Erno Rubik on the 40th anniversary of his Rubik’s Cube, created in 1974).

How will you help others fall in love with problem solving? How might you practice Berger’s idea of Why/What If/How might we…? I invite you to share your ideas and your beautiful questions.

-- Anne Stevenson, Extension educator and Extension professor

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  1. As a child I remember my father frequently asking me "What did you think would happen!" I'm not sure if he truly meant it as a beautiful question. The point did stick with me though. As an adult I see myself frequently thinking through professional and personal topics as I consider what the consequence of a decision or action may be as I identify my best course of action. Right now my favorite beautiful question is "How could you..."

    1. Mark, I love how your father's question, while perhaps not being beautiful, helps spur your thinking even now to think about results of your decisions. I think the How could you...question helps to open people to possibilities, and invites action steps! Have you seen others develop a new course of action by asking that question? Thanks for the post!

  2. I REALLY enjoyed the quote by Erno Rubik: "Knowledge is a habit. Sometimes there’s a limit to having new ideas. That’s the problem with the old schooling. Because they were teaching answers. I believe that questions today are probably more important today than the answers."

    I think this is important not just for children who think they "can't do" science because they don't get good grades in science, but also for adults who think they can't work with youth doing any type of science project because they themselves weren't "good at science." Encouraging youth to ask questions doesn't require that an adult leader/mentor/guide know the answers; youth need that support, that cheerleader to continue to ask those questions and become problem solvers.

    My current favorite beautiful question fall in the "How might we" category:
    How can we do this differently (what options do we have)?

    1. Thanks Margo! I agree that Rubik's quote is so relevant to being able to spur young people (and adults) to asking the questions. I find adults often get frustrated when I try to talk about your point: that their most important role is supporting youth in asking good questions and helping them think about how to discover or find the answer. They understand this concept intellectually, yet are frustrated if they feel they know nothing about the content area. Discovering together is good. And sometimes it is easier to help guide young people if you do know a little bit of the subject matter. Have you found ways to do this with your work with citizen science projects or engineering efforts? It is very real and I feel like we should be ready to support this piece, as we train adults to work with youth! I'd welcome any thoughts that might help us on this!
      I appreciate you "how might we..." again opens up the possibilities, and I think, can help others to feel successful when faced with a "failed try"...rather than them feeling like they've failed.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments Margo!


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