Tony Wagner on questioning as a survival skill

Tony_Wagner_320wdAs I mentioned in my recent interview with actor Stephen Tobolowsky, I’ll be periodically posting my lightly edited transcripts of some of the many interesting people I interviewed while writing A More Beautiful Question. Today I’m sharing a conversation I had with Harvard education superstar Tony Wagner (author most recently of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World). The current Expert in Residence at Harvard University’s new Innovation Lab has much to say about the power of inquiry.

Click to read Wagner’s thoughts on:
• The importance of problem formulation and asking questions
• How to ask “essential questions”
• Questioning as a challenge to authority

• Education’s preoccupation with answers
• Why businesses don’t question enough

On the importance of problem formulation and asking questions

GuySignHowMightWe2“Knowledge is rapidly becoming a free commodity. Known answers are everywhere, and easily accessible to anyone with a computer. So given that, what skills become critically important? I think the critical capability is being able to use knowledge—to apply knowledge—in order to create new knowledge.

“All of that begins with problem formulation. Everyone wants to talk about problem solving—but problem formulation is the more highly-desired skill. I began my last book with the question, Given a flat world (I’d just read the Thomas Friedman book) what are the most important skills today that young people must master for careers, continuous learning, and citizenship? I interviewed a wide variety of executives from Apple to the U.S. military and the most frequent response I got about skills was: the ability to ask good questions. It comes right back to problem formulation.

“I came up with 7 survival skills. The first survival skill was “critical thinking and problem solving.” When you really dig deeply into that, you hear people say it’s all about being able to ask really good questions. Einstein said, ‘The formulation of the problem is often more essential than the solution.’ And the formulation of the problem is all about how you ask the question.

“Google search is all about formulating a good question. If you formulate a search badly on Google, you’re going to get garbage. That’s a metaphor for real life, too. If you’re not asking the questions in a thoughtful way, you’re not going to get any results that are useful or interesting.”

How to ask “essential questions”

QuestionMagician“Asking what [education reformer] Ted Sizer used to call ‘an essential question’ is an art form—in teaching and in life. And I find very few people know how to ask questions that really get to the heart of the matter. Not just questioning what’s there, what’s apparent—the real gift is being able to question what’s not there, what’s missing.

“What goes into being able to do that? Obviously curiosity, as a habit. I think, secondly, you need a more synthetic kind of intelligence. Acuriosity that crosses over a wide range of boundaries, where a person, habitually, is looking at a lot of different areas of interest and able to make connections across those things. Collaborative inquiry gets back to listening. You listen carefully for what others are seeing or saying and how they’re formulating questions, and you build on that.”

Questioning as a challenge to authority

QuestionasChallenge“I think many adults are afraid to ask what they would call a ‘stupid question,’ because they lack the courage of their curiosity—or because they’ve been acculturated to never question authority. I was invited to spend a day at Quantico, at the U.S. Marine officers academy, I was most struck by how reticent those young first lieutenants were to ask any questions —and how much trouble that was going to get them into. They were afraid of looking stupid or questioning authority.

“General Martin Dempsey transformed all training in the U.S. military (he was head of training before he became Chairman of the Chief Joints of Staff). He talked about how his mission was to get the army to fundamentally rethink the skills that were most important in military as a matter of survival. General Dempsey talked very explicitly about teaching soldiers and officers to think critically and to question. How do you do that in a context of a compliance-driven system? The tension is between two values: You’ve got to obey orders, but you also sometimes have to question those orders; how do you do both?”

On education’s preoccupation with answers

Girl-asking-questions2“There may be many factors for why kids stop questioning. I think one is, we’ve defined the aim of school as being to acquire more correct answers. The goal of schooling is to have more right answers than the person next to you. And we penalize incorrect answers. We do this at such a pace—especially now, in this highly-focused test prep universe—we don’t have time for extraneous questions.

“I remember sitting in on a 7th grade science class and this kid started asking all kinds of questions about the universe and stars. The teacher was just trying to teach, Here are the planets, now shut up, and memorize this. The focus was on, You have to memorize and produce the right answers. We don’t have time for questions —because that will take time away from the number of answers I have to cover. And this was in a “good” school. That was powerful for me.

“I’ve been in hundreds of classes and one of the things I do is simply listen for who’s asking what kinds of questions. Most frequently, it’s teachers asking Guess what’s on my mind? questions. This was before test-prep got to where it is today. Now we’ve defined learning as the acquisition of facts.

“Some of the best teachers I know organize an entire year of study around a few essential questions. Like for American history, it might be, Who are we as Americans? What are the most important influences that have shaped us as a country? And What are the challenges we face moving forward? Those are questions that would be explored throughout the entire year, and then you would ask students to write essays on those questions or questions they have developed. By doing that, you’re modeling good questioning. Secondly, the emphasis is not on memorization but on reasoning, weighing evidence, considering conflicting points of view… What Deborah Meier has famously called ‘habits of mind.’”

Why businesses don’t question enough

QnotinEquation“The problem starts in business school. I interviewed Joel Podony, VP at Apple, and he said that unfortunately business school kids aren’t there to learn —they’re there to pad out their resume and get the leap into the job market—they’re playing a game, it’s not about learning. That’s why, at Cisco, they were intentionally trying to disrupt their young future leaders’ mental models, in order to enable them to see things differently, and to question differently. The methodology of Annmarie Neal of the Cisco Center for Collaborative Leadership, was to intentionally disrupt conventional thinking and patterns of experience with new experience.

Another issue is that in the business world, the pace of change and the pressure on short-term results drives questioning out of the equation. So the CEOs on one hand will sometimes ask good questions and sometimes be very forward-thinking, but with middle-management, it’s all about compliance, and moving forward. Brad Andersen, the former CEO of Best Buy, felt his senior management were his biggest obstacles to change. They assumed that their promotion meant they were smarter than people under them, and therefore didn’t listen to those people.”

Some other popular posts on kids and questioning:

» Want still more? Click on this graphic to read all the articles on this site about Kids & Questioning, and check out my popular Edutopia article “5 Ways to Help Your Students Become Better Questioners.”


How can we keep the questioning going as adults? See this fast-click blogshare…

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About the Author

Innovation expert and questionologist Warren Berger has studied hundreds of the world’s foremost innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers to learn how they ask questions, generate original ideas, and solve problems. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, including his three books on questioning: A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas; its follow-up THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead; and BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM: Transforming Classrooms Into Cultures of Curiosity and Inquiry. Warren’s writing has appeared in Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and The New York Times, and he writes the “Questionologist” blog for Psychology Today. He lives in Mount Kisco, New York. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts

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  1. Lisa Bedford says:

    I couldn’t agree more to what you said in this article. I think preparedness is an essential skill everyone must have because it will actually help you predict things and even prevent worse things to happen. I love this post keep this up!