Friday / June 14

A Tool for Uncertain Times 

I am a questionologist. If you’ve never heard the term before that may be because I made it up. I needed a word to describe what I do: I study the art and science of questioning.  

My work focuses on why and how the simple act of asking questions can improve our lives in many ways. Questioning can help us to learn, analyzesolve problems, make better decisions, communicate and empathize better with others. That’s why I believe it is so important for educators to try to help their students become better questioners, which is a central theme of my current book, Beautiful Questions in the Classroom. 

But in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, I’ve been thinking a lot about one particular aspect of questioning. It is a tool we can all use in dealing with uncertainty and the unknown. Think of questioning as a trusty flashlight that we shine into the surrounding darkness of the unknown. Each question we ask illuminates a new area.  

And we can determine how much light is cast by the type of question we ask. (Open-ended questions cast a wide field of light; closed questions project a more laser-like, pinpoint stream of light.) By asking the right questions, we can uncover new information; analyze whether this new information is important and what it might mean to us; and hypothesize about what to do next. With this questioning tool in hand, we are able to begin to make sense of the mysteries around us–which can enable us to take small steps forward in the face of uncertainty.  

This aspect of questioning makes it extremely valuable to scientists, innovators, creative artists, and explorers. As I’ve found in my research, people who invent, create, and explore tend to be very comfortable asking questions while confronting the unknown. They may look at a puzzling situation or a difficult problem and ask, What does this mean to me? How should I be reacting or adapting to it? What can I learn from this situation? Is there a problem here that I can help solve? Innovators and creators tend to thrive in these dynamic circumstances. 

But many of us are less comfortable with uncertainty and with asking exploratory questions that don’t necessarily have easy answers. Which can make it all the more difficult for us to cope in times of great uncertainty–such as our current circumstance. 

That’s why I think it is especially important now for all of us–and especially educators and their students–to embrace a “questioning mindset.” By that I mean, an attitude or disposition that is curious, open to new information, inclined to rigorously question that new information, and, perhaps most important, willing to ask big, challenging questions about what current circumstances mean to us and how we might adapt to what’s going on around us. If you can embrace this mindset, and encourage students to do likewise, it can help you navigate the current challenges with a spirit of resourcefulness. 

So how do you become a better, bolder questioner in these trying times? That, itself, is a big, beautiful, and challenging question–the kind you can’t just look up on Google. But here are a few tips gleaned from my research that might prove helpful.  

  • Bring a beginner’s mind to your work. Questioners try to look at a situation with an open mind, free of assumptions. They’re more willing to consider alternative approaches and to experiment. I think educators will need this kind of openness and flexibility as they attempt to respond to the crisis with new ways of teaching, such as virtual classrooms.  
  • Model curiosity for your students. It has been said that fear can kill curiosity; when people sense danger they tend to hunker down and wait to be told what to do. In this climate, educators may have to make an extra effort to nurture student curiosity. Do that by sharing provocative ideas, objects, and visuals. And share with students some of the things you’re curious about these days–including the questions you are asking yourself in these unusual times (keep it upbeat and optimistic, of course).  
  • Encourage students to formulate positive questions together. This is a great time for students to work on formulating How Might We questions–about everything from How might we find new ways to learn together as a class? to How might we provide help to our local neighborhood?   
  • Ask students what they’re wondering about. Invite them to share questions with other students on virtual wonder walls.  
  • Encourage the use of critical thinking questions. As we’re all being bombarded with news, views, and prognostication about the crisis, this is a good time to teach kids that some information is more relevant and trustworthy than other info–and that it’s up to them to use their built-in “questioning filter” to sort through the noise. Foster the habit of asking basic questions like, “What’s the evidence behind this claim?” and “What’s the opposing view?” 
  • Let them know it’s okay to not have all the answers. This will serve them well not only in this current period of uncertainty but in the long run, as well. These students will grow up to live in a world where they will constantly be navigating in the midst of dynamic change and uncertainty. They’ll have to be skillful at adapting, adjusting, rethinking. So the sooner they become comfortable with change and uncertainty, the better. When they can look at the unknown and see it not as something scary but as an opportunity to learn and explore, they’ll be ready to join the ranks of the inventors, creators, and innovators of tomorrow.

Written by

Warren Berger is the creator of the popular website and author of The Book of Beautiful Questions: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead (Bloomsbury, 2018) and A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2014)—all focusing on the power of inquiry to improve your daily life. With Corwin, he has published Beautiful Questions in the Classroom: Transforming Classrooms into Cultures of Curiosity and Inquiry (2020). Before focusing on questioning, Warren wrote the internationally acclaimed Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Business and Your Life (Penguin Press, 2009), published in several editions worldwide. Business Week named Glimmer one of the “Best Innovation & Design Books of the Year.” Warren writes for a wide variety of publications, including Fast Company and Harvard Business Review, and was a longtime contributor at Wired magazine and The New York Times. He has appeared on NBC’s Today, ABC’s World News Tonight, and CNN, and as an expert on NPR’s All Things Considered. As a speaker, Warren has keynoted at the Oracle Connect Conference, the Cusp Conference, the Fuse Conference, the Design Thinkers Conference, and the International Women’s Forum in Rome. He has spoken about questioning, and conducted questioning workshops, with the NASA Space Center, the U.S. Army, General Electric, Starbucks, Microsoft, Disney, and many other organizations. The education world has particularly embraced the power of questioning. He has been a guest lecturer at the University of Virginia, the University of Oregon, University of South Carolina, Bowling Green State College, New York’s School of Visual Arts, and Virginia Commonwealth University, where he gave the 2011 commencement address for graduating business students.

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