Curriculum Opinion

‘A More Beautiful Question': An Interview With Warren Berger

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 16, 2014 8 min read
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This summer, I’ll be alternating between publishing thematic collections of past posts (ones on Student Motivation, Implementing The Common Core, and Teaching Reading & Writing have already been published) and sharing interviews with authors of recent books I consider important and useful for us educators (Meenoo Rami was the first, and co-authors Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch were the second).

Warren Berger, the author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry To Spark Breakthrough Ideas has agreed to answer a few questions about his book. I’ve written elsewhere about how my colleagues and I use his work with our students.

LF: How would you define a “beautiful” or “powerful” question and the reasoning behind that definition?

Warren Berger:

At the root of A More Beautiful Question is the idea that great things come from asking ambitious questions. I was inspired by the E.E. Cummings line, “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” In my years covering the worlds of design, invention, and innovation, I noticed many breakthroughs began with someone posing a bold, interesting question.

For the book, I came up with my own, admittedly subjective, definition of a beautiful question: An ambitious, yet actionable, question that can begin to change the way we think about something--and might serve as a catalyst to bring about change. Such questions challenge the prevailing assumptions, and take a fresh look at things that perhaps are being ignored or taken for granted.

Anyone can ask a beautiful question. The Polaroid instant camera was inspired when the 3-year-old daughter of company founder Edwin Land asked her father, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?” She couldn’t understand why film had to be sent out for processing; she wanted to see the results right away. This question got her father thinking, and set in motion the process that led to the invention. More generally, whenever someone steps back and asks--Why are we doing things the way we’ve been doing them all along? What if we tried a whole new approach?--that, to me, is a beautiful question.

LF: You discuss how many of our schools still use a “factory model” of education that is not very friendly to the idea of encouraging students to develop their ability to ask these types of questions (though you do highlight some that have not followed that path, including schools founded by one of my colleagues here at Education Week, blogger Deborah Meier).

If you only had a short time to help a student understand why this ability is important to their present life and to their future, what would you say to him or her?

Warren Berger:

Here’s what I would say to any student: Knowing the answers will help you in school, but knowing how to question will help you in life. That ability to question--and do it well--enables you to tackle challenges and solve problems, which will help you succeed in your career and as a person. Plus, it can help you do a lot of cool, interesting things that may make the world a better place. Just think about those tech gadgets you love: Most of them sprang from someone asking, “Why hasn’t anybody come up with a better way to do this?” or “What if we tried that?” Or think of the musical artists who are doing the most interesting stuff--they all tend to question the status quo and try fresh, original approaches. If you want to forge your own path, you’ve got to be a questioner.

LF: And, after you did that, what would you say to a teacher that might convince him or her to make this kind of question-asking skill a higher-priority in their classroom -- even in the face of standards and standardized testing pressures?

Warren Berger:

Here’s what I’d say to teachers: The world needs great, imaginative questioners. It needs them today and will need them even more tomorrow. In an environment of dynamic change, these students will have to be lifelong learners. They won’t be able to rely long-term solely on the knowledge they gained in school; they will be forced to constantly adapt, re-think old rules, systems, and approaches, and keep learning new skills. As Harvard’s Tony Wagner has declared, our education system must create innovators--and innovative thinking starts with questioning.

It’s a given that teachers have a lot of material to cover and limited time and resources. But if you accept that questioning is a critical skill--a survival skill of the future--then that’s reason enough to try to somehow carve out a bit more time dedicated to helping students become better questioners. It’s not easy: There is evidence suggesting that student questioning in classrooms steadily declines as kids get older. There are all kinds of forces working against student questioning, not least being that it can be seen as “uncool” to ask questions in class. So it’s up to teachers to create a safe haven for questioning, and to stimulate and encourage it--they must somehow try to rekindle that flame of curiosity and inquiry.

LF: Okay, let’s say you’ve now convinced them both. You suggest the Right Question Institute as one resource for teachers who want to pursue it more, and I think their work might be somewhat similar to Project Zero in Harvard, whose Ron Ritchhart has previously contributed to this column.

What simple practical teaching suggestions, though, would you recommend to a teacher who would want to “dip their toe in the water” of beginning to prioritize question-asking in their classroom?

Warren Berger:

There are various question-teaching methodologies, and I suspect there’s no “right way” to do it. What I like about RQI’s approach is that it’s simple, yet does a very powerful thing: It shifts the dynamic from teachers formulating questions for the students, to the students formulating their own questions. This is a big shift. Teachers spend a lot of time crafting the questions designed to get students to think more clearly--and rightly so. But something else seems to happen when students are encouraged to formulate the questions themselves. They begin developing their own questioning “muscle” and figuring out for themselves which questions are effective and aren’t. And it’s logical that kids would become more engaged when they think of their own questions--they have an investment in them, and are likely to care more about finding answers.

So I would say, find whatever method you’re comfortable with, as long as it creates the time and “safe” space that will allow and encourage students to focus on doing their own question-formulation. Don’t tell them what questions to ask. And don’t give them answers before they’ve had a chance to question. I love the example provided by teacher Dan Meyer in this popular Ted-X talk, in which he shows that the mere act of withholding information can spark kids’ curiosity to the point where they can’t help asking questions.

Once they do start coming up with their own questions, then it becomes important to help them analyze and improve those questions, and work toward asking even better ones.

LF: You write that, since we’re awash these days in data and information, it’s more important than ever for us to be able to develop the ability to ask good questions so we can effectively “sift and sort” through all of it. Your point reminded me of a recent New York Times article on the same topic -- the need to ask the right questions to derive valid information from “Big Data.” And it certainly relates to lessons we teachers use to help our students identify credible -- and not credible -- reference sources on the Web.

Can you elaborate a bit on both the threat and the promise of technology to the development of effective question-asking skills?

Warren Berger:

I think the threat is that students (and the rest of us) may assume the answers are all there at our fingertips--that all the thinking has been done for us. But all that data isn’t of much use unless we know how to interpret it and what to do with it. Again, this goes back to questioning skills: The ability to look at information and ask, Why is this important? Should I accept it as entirely true or complete? What if there’s a different way of thinking about this? And, from a practical standpoint, How can I best use this information for my purposes?

Google is a wonderful tool for questioners, but it’s only a starting point. If we’re going to tackle really interesting, powerful questions, we shouldn’t expect easy answers obtained with a few keystrokes. We shouldn’t settle for Wikipedia wisdom. We should get in the habit of living with important questions, turning them over in our minds, experimenting and acting on them in various ways, large and small, and sharing them with other people. That “sharing” part is where technology can be really great--if you have a “beautiful question,” you may find someone halfway around the world who is thinking about that same question, and who may help you explore.

LF: Many teachers who do include explicit question-asking skills in their classroom use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide. I was a bit surprised to not see that Taxonomy mentioned in the book. What was the reasoning behind leaving it out, and do you think it can be a useful tool to promote questioning skills?

I think Bloom’s Taxonomy can be an extremely valuable tool for teachers in terms of breaking down various levels of learning and the different kinds of questions that tend to be effective at each level. I thought about including it in the book, but it seemed a bit technical and academic for a general readership. My only concern with Bloom’s Taxonomy would be if it were used in a way that made questioning seem either too complex or overly formulaic to the students. This might dampen the enthusiasm that can be generated by letting kids use their own imagination and innate questioning skills to figure out how to get to “higher level” questions themselves--with help from the teacher, of course.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Well, I’ll close by saying that questions are much more powerful than we may realize. They have a magnetic quality--they can intrigue, engage, motivate. I’ve started suggesting to business executives that maybe they should get rid of their corporate mission statements and replace them with “mission questions"--which would be much less arrogant-sounding, and also more likely to engage employees in a mission that is not yet accomplished and full of possibility. And I wonder if this concept would have relevance in classrooms, too. Should schools formulate their own “How Might We” mission questions? Should teachers? Should teachers and students collaborate on coming up with a “beautiful question” for the class or the school to pursue? I have lots more questions, but I’ll stop there.

LF: Thanks, Warren!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.