Einstein once explained, “It’s not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.” I spoke in assembly this week about the importance of asking questions to develop learning. I urged girls to make questioning an active habit. Asking questions is the basis of one of the earliest forms of education — the Socratic Method — used to train young minds in the rigours of critical thinking. Yet, it’s a mostly ignored in our world that “tends to place more value on answers, pronouncements and promises,” according to Warren Berger in his book, A More Beautiful Question.
Berger points out that, as children, we start out questioning everything: then, as we get older, we lose that innate skill and become more conformist and less creative. In his research, Berger found that everything from the inspiration for the Red Cross, to the birth of the Internet, to the invention of the cell phone, could be traced back to a question. He describes a beautiful question as ‘an ambitious, yet actionable, question that can begin to shift the way we think about something—and can serve as a catalyst to bring about change’.
It is true that often one great question can lead to a whole world of discovery. According to Stuart Firestein in his book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, “One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, and generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking.”
Berger suggests you start building your own beautiful question by looking to where your interests and passions lie—ask yourself what you care deeply about. Look for a tough problem that needs solving.
Once you’ve found a challenge worth pursuing, he says, put it into the form of a “How might I?” question. Business and enterprise innovators have been using this form of questioning for years because it’s a great way to phrase a question that is open and yet still action-oriented.
It’s also important to stick with your question. We have become too accustomed to getting quick answers to our daily questions on Google, but a beautiful question calls for a very different kind of “search”—which may lead you to unfamiliar places, new ways of thinking. I spent a lovely lesson in Y9 English class this week. The girls had produced some superb responses to research they’d been doing on Jane Austen’s life and work. As part of the task, Miss Bournon had insisted there be no ‘cutting and pasting from Wikipedia’. The result was that, in addition to observing some excellent projects, I found the girls able to talk about Austen with impressive knowledge and insight: not having gone for easy answers, their learning was deeper and the pride they had taken in the efforts they made was palpable. This encouragement of girls to ask questions and stick with them also underpins the Temple Project Qualification that we run each year in school.