In A More Beautiful Question, I talk about how questioning is central to learning, but also how curiosity and inquisitiveness are drummed out of many children over the years via our educational system. Fewer questions may make it easier on the teacher, but far less effective for the student’s long-term learning.
So I was very interested to read Professor Robert H. Frank’s real-life examples of this concept in action in his May 11 NYTimes essay, “How Can They Charge That? (And Other Questions).”
Professor Frank, an economics professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, had been dismayed by a finding that
Six months after having completed a standard introductory economics course, students are no better able to answer questions about basic economic principles than others who have never even taken economics. In standard courses, hundreds of concepts — many of them embedded in complex equations and graphs — often seem to go by in a blur.”
So Professor Frank came up with a writing assignment for his students where he asked them to devise questions around real-life behavior the students had observed. The professor gives several examples of observational questions his students came up with. For example:
Why do tickets to popular Broadway shows command premium prices, while movie theaters charge the same price for popular films as for clunkers? Things in high demand generally command higher prices, so why not blockbuster films?”
A good question, eh? The plausible explanation the student came up with is good, too. (See it here in the article.)
At first the out-of-practice students have trouble formulating sufficiently interesting questions, but the professor reports that by the end of the semester they eagerly embraced the questioning methodology. “Between midterm and term’s end, their brains have somehow become rewired to see the world differently,” he says.
Professor Frank also reports that on the basis of emails with former students over the years he found that “once students discover how costs and benefits shape everyday experience, their mastery of economic principles doesn’t decay over time; it grows stronger.”
My takeaway from Professor Frank’s educational experiment is that if we can nurture or reignite the ability to pose beautiful questions, people can better grapple with and grasp difficult concepts and challenges—thus creating a highly effective, lifelong learning strategy.
To see more of Professor Frank’s many interesting articles, visit http://www.robert-h-frank.com/popularpress.html
Thanks to @IreneLevine for bringing this article to our attention.
As I finish up writing A More Beautiful Question, one theme that comes up repeatedly is taking ownership of the big questions in our lives. Instead of merely voicing a classic complaint such as “Why doesn’t someone do something about this?” the redirect is to transform it into a challenge that you take on yourself.
In “Take Ownership of Your Questions” from last year, I reported how banker and inventor Mark Noonan told me that “people are always saying, ‘Why doesn’t somebody do this or make that,’ but it doesn’t go any further. It’s just a rant.” To bring about change, Noonan says, “You have to decide, ‘I’m going to keep working on this question until I get something done.’” The post goes on to show how Noonan transformed a pain in the back into a profitable solution.
In terms of great payoffs, the story I came upon last week via Huffington Post’s TEDWeekend video series is one of the memorable ones. How about posing a beautiful question that ends up helping paralyzed artists create art with just their minds?
I’ve always enjoyed going to Panera Bread but I like the chain even better now that I’ve had a chance to speak with the man who runs it, Ron Shaich. He is a big believer in the power of questioning. In fact, Shaich just posted a LinkedIn piece, which I recommend, titled “Want a Better Answer? Ask a Better Question.” In it, he talks about how Panera in its present form came into being after Shaich’s management team at Au Bon Pain (Panera’s predecessor) asked “a series of forward-leaning questions: What will the world look like in the next five years? What are the long-term trends that are shaping consumers’ desires? And how do we align ourselves with those trends?
That questioning helped produce a new vision and, eventually, a whole new company. To this day,
Had a great conversation the other day with Tiffany Shlain, whose film Connected is really generating a lot of buzz these days. Shlain is fascinating to me because she’s one of the most “connected” people you’ll find—she created the Webby Awards, and she uses social media extensively and brilliantly to circulate and market her films—yet she also questions whether we’re at times too connected and what the ramifications of that may be.
Shlain has decided to do something about this in her own life. Every week, on Friday evenings, she and her family unplug all tech devices for a day. Shlain calls it her “tech Shabbat”—she wrote a great piece about the experience of doing this in Harvard Business Review.
“It’s completely changed my life,” Shlain told me, referring to the weekly disconnect. “I find I’ve saved
Getting some good feedback on this piece that I wrote for Fast Company, which offers up 5 questions companies can ask to see if they’re staying true to their missions. What I was going to write at the end of the piece—and somehow I couldn’t make it fit smoothly with the rest of the article, so I never got to it—is that maybe the mission statement itself should be replaced by a question.
Why would a company want to do this?
John Seely Brown has an impressive résumé. The former chief scientist at Xerox Corporation, he headed up its esteemed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) for years. He’s been inducted into the Industry Hall of Fame. He’s written extensively on education, most recently as co-author of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (which argues for a whole new approach to teaching). And currently he serves as a visiting scholar at USC and co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, which advises businesses on dealing with technological upheaval.
On his website, JSB (as he likes to be known) declares: “I call myself the chief of confusion and I argue that it’s more important to ask questions than to get answers.” Obviously, he’s someone who definitely belongs in a book on questioning, and I was pleased to track him down in Hawaii recently for a long and fascinating interview.
I want to touch on just one part of that talk here. I asked JSB a question that is central to my book, specifically:
Is questioning becoming more important today?”
“Yes,” he answered. Then he added, “Now, do you have any more questions?”
He was joking, and proceeded to give a more expansive reply to my closed question.
A couple of months ago, I stumbled across the work of Dr. Sugata Mitra, who has, for years, been conducting very interesting learning experiments in India. Perhaps you’ve heard his story of the “hole-in-the-wall computer,” which got some attention about a decade ago. Dr. Mitra wanted to see what would happen if he installed an Internet-connected computer at kid’s-eye level in a wall that faced out onto the street of a New Delhi slum. He encouraged young, uneducated children in the neighborhood to play with the computer, but didn’t teach them how to use it. Before long they’d taught themselves (and their friends) how to surf the Web, play games, and even, eventually, solve complex problems that Dr. Mitra served up to them.
I tracked down Dr. Mitra at a university in England, and
If you’re interested in questioning—and you should be—this site has lots to offer, including regular articles about why questioning leads to innovation, how it can help you be more successful in your career, and how we can all get better at asking the kind of “beautiful questions” that spark change in our businesses and lives.
I’d love for you to contribute to this blog and become a member of the “community of questioners” I’m building. I also hope you’ll subscribe to the site’s periodic e-newsletter (just input your email in the box below).
If you’re visiting the site for the first time, here are some handy posts that explain what I’m up to. Please join in the conversation.
• Writing about questions (this gets lots of comments)
“I loved this series of articles, thank you! I'm going to use a lot of these questions with the groups ...”
“This is a great recognition and a strong idea. A well-crafted, simple question can be both specific and open. In ...”
“Drucker also authored the 1999 Harvard Business Review article “Managing Oneself” (republished in 2005 as an HBR Classic) http://hbr.org/2005/01/managing-oneself/ar/1 (subscription required ...”
“great post which addreesses the problem in our schools. the kids as they progress are no longer graded or tested ...”
“The world as we know is changing so rapidly we cannot assume we know all's that to know about it...so ...”
“Great article on a related topic in the NYTimes today. “The Boys at the Back” by Christina Hoff Sommers (a ...”
“I see the world is divided into two camps: The first camp encourages questioning and subscribes to the belief that there’s ...”
“Why don't they use it to better themselves? They're just trying to pull each other down. ”
“As part of his PR campaign for his new book, I noticed this week that Nikhil wrote a provocative letter ...”
“Career 'lego' rather than career ladder (Dan Pink). http://www.winningbysharing.net/bp.asp ”