Warren Berger is author of “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.”
As many of you know, I love to ask authors of books I am reading, about their thinking and to dig a little more deeply into their writing. I am always grateful when they take time out of their crazy schedules to answer my questions.
Warren Berger is such a person, and he has a book that I think almost every educator that is really thinking about changing teaching and learning needs to read.
Enjoy this enlightening conversation:
Can you give us a 5000 foot view of “A More Beautiful Question?” What was your inspiration for writing the book?
As a longtime journalist, I always felt questions were important – though I thought about them in a more limited way, as a means of extracting information from other people. But as I started to interview innovators and creative thinkers, I found that these people tended to use questioning as a means of challenging existing ways of doing things, and pursuing new paths. So I began to think of questioning as a starting point of innovation, change, and growth. And that became the main message of my book, “A More Beautiful Question.” The idea being, if you could find the right question (a “beautiful question”), it could lead you to new and interesting possibilities
One of the points you make is that children stop deeply questioning things almost exactly at the same time that they begin school. Why is that?
I think there are several reasons. Part of it is social pressure. When they’re 4 or 5, kids feel very comfortable asking their parents anything. As they get into school, they may feel less comfortable asking questions in front of strangers. And gradually, questioning comes to be seen as “uncool”—because you’re admitting, in front of your peers, that you don’t know something. But another element that probably discourages questioning is our education system—which rewards answers. Oftentimes, there is little time or tolerance for questions in the classroom, especially if teachers are under pressure to cover lots of material and “teach to the test.”
It seems to me that, as I think you point out in your books, education values learning through memorization over learning through questioning. That certainly seems the faster way to teach, but I suspect you would say that is not the best way to teach. What do you say to people that long for the “good old days” of teaching where students sat in class all day and mostly listened to their teachers? Many of these people seem to think that they were “successfully” educated.
I think it’s natural to long for the good old days, but we have to acknowledge that the world has changed in so many ways. One way is technology—everyone has the equivalent of “memorized answers” at the fingertips, just by searching Google. So maybe we need to re-think the value of simply downloading facts into students’ brains; not to say there’s no need for memorized facts anymore, but probably less so than in the past. Also, it seems clear that students learn better when they are fully engaged. So if we can find ways to spark their curiosity, or to get them actually learning by doing, as opposed to passively receiving info, it is bound to have better results in terms of deep learning. One thing to keep in mind is that, as the world keeps changing so quickly, we must prepare students to be lifelong learners who can keep adapting to change. So I think the best model for that is to train them to be good questioners and experimenters.
I have seen a shift away from that rote memorization in the K12 space, with Problem and Project Based Learning making great headways, especially in innovative schools such as High Tech High. However, I wonder if that same headway is happening at the post secondary level where the lecture still comprises the vast majority of teaching and learning. What have you seen?
The lecture model still holds sway, for the most part. I just think it’s because education—like business—doesn’t question its own fundamental assumptions. The assumption has long been that the best way to teach groups of people is to have a learned person stand in front of them and talk. It certainly is one way of teaching, but not the only and probably not the best way. Nevertheless, even if one is using the lecture model, there is still room for interactivity and questioning, if the professor or teacher is willing to make room (and time) for it. At all levels of education, teachers must actively encourage questioning. If it’s a large class—which puts more pressure on question-askers—it may be a good idea to break students up into smaller groups that formulate questions, then share those questions with the full class. Create exercises, games, contests, all based around coming up with the most or the best questions.
You showcase a few companies where beautiful questioning is valued a cultural norm such as Google and Netflix. Are there just some spaces where questioning is a better fit than others? Would your ideas fit into any area of work, even staunch institutions such as the military?
I have found that companies are like people—when they are young, they question more. So the startups tend to have corporate cultures that encourage curiosity and questioning. As the company matures, more policies and “best practices” and rules are developed—and gradually, it seems as if there is no need for questioning anything because the answer is always going to be, “This is the way we do things here at Company X.” But I think even the established companies are starting to look at questioning differently now. Because of all the rapid change that is happening around them, they are now realizing they can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing for years—they must begin to question many of their assumptions and habits. I don’t think it matters what industry you’re in—and yes, even the military has approached me with interest on this subject of questioning. What matters more is the attitude of the people at the top: Are they open to change and new ways of thinking, or not?
How do you think the ability to ask beautiful questions is hindered by technology such as Google, where the answers to many questions are available in a millisecond’s time?
Google is a mixed blessing for questioning. On the positive side, there is now a place you can easily go with your questions and quickly begin to get answers. But the problem is, Google tends to provide superficial (and sometimes wrong) answers. It is a fairly good tool for answering very simple, practical questions. But as I like to say to people, if you want to answer a beautiful question—one that is more original, ambitious, and personalized—it requires a different kind of “search.” Google might still be a starting point, but you’ll need to go much wider and deeper if you want to really explore a bigger question.
It is one thing to be able to reframe ideas as better questions, but they also have to be created in such a way that they can have answers. What is the relationship between a beautiful question and a beautiful answer?
To me, a beautiful question should be actionable. This is a very subjective definition of that term; other people might find a philosophical or spiritual question that has no answer to be beautiful. But I’m interested in questions that can spark fresh thinking and then lead to change. So I would say, a beautiful question should begin to point you in the direction of a beautiful answer. You may have to revise that question along the way, before you get to an answer, but the original question is the starting point on the journey. It is something you can pursue and act upon.
It seems sort of obvious that if there are better questions to be asked, there will be better answers to be given. Why don’t you think people or companies or even governments see that way of thinking as a matter of course?
Because we tend to value only the answers—the result, the final product. We are less apt to value everything that led up to the result. Perhaps it is because we value the things that get measured and that people will pay money to own. Answers are measured and rewarded (on tests), or they may be sold as products and marketable ideas. So answers are where the perceived value lies, and so everyone wants answers, now! The idea that you should expend energy or resources on questions, in hopes of eventually getting better answers—I think most people don’t have the patience for that.
From an ethnographic point of view, are there countries or cultures that are better at asking questions than others?
I haven’t done enough research to answer that well. I have observed that in some countries and cultures—ones that are very strict and hierarchical—it can be dangerous to ask questions. Or it may be seen as disrespectful. The more individualistic and entrepreneurial a country is, generally the more likely that its people are more comfortable asking questions.
I always like to end with this question: Who is listening to you and how do you know?
I can tell who’s listening by the feedback I receive. Teachers are listening to me; some business leaders are listening; creative people who are curious and open to new ideas also seem to be listening. I travel a lot to schools and universities and I find that some young people are listening; others, I’m afraid, are not hearing me because they are too busy texting.
About Warren Berger:
Warren Berger believes questions are more important than answers.
He is the creator of the website and author of the 2014 book A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury)—both focusing on the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas.
Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.
Feel free to leave a comment. Read his previous columns here.
An expert on design thinking and innovation, Warren has studied hundreds of the world’s leading innovators, designers, red-hot start-ups, and creative thinkers to analyze how they ask game-changing questions, solve problems, and create new possibilities. Warren believes that questioning leads to innovation, can help you be more successful in your career, and can spark change in our businesses and lives.
Warren’s previous book was the international bestseller 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.”