The Power of Questions

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”- Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters To a Young Poet

I passionately found and read Rilke’s writing over and over and over again when I was a teenager and into young adulthood, and his words continue to resonate for me.

I have been thinking a lot about the power of questions lately, and our relationship to questions. My three year old is at the stage where he is constantly asking questions about everything – how does this work? Why do we do this? What does this mean? He spends his day questioning, and that is how he is learning so much about his world. I try to be patient and open with providing the most (and age-appropriate) response to all of his questions, as well as encouraging his curiosity.

But something happens when we get older – we seem to lose our questions. We become more comfortable with answers, and limited answers at best. We lose our capacity for questioning. Questioning is perceived in a negative way, and interpreted as defiance. Our natural ability to ask questions seems to disappear.

I teach at a college, and for one of my assignments, students are asked to come up with a research question about a social service topic that they care about. I thought it was an easy exercise, until I went into my classroom and my students looked at me like I had three eyes. Overall, they are challenged to develop questions that they want to think about and research. We now do extensive collective brainstorming to help each other with developing questions, but it doesn’t come easy. While most of my students can identify a topic that they are interested in, when I ask them: “What is it that you want to know or better understand? What questions do you have this topic?”, their mind is blank. They haven’t thought about questions.

I have realized that questioning can be used as a powerful pedagogical tool in my teaching. I try to encourage questioning as a way to challenge students to think differently and deeper. For example, once we have discussed and learned about a subject, I ask my students to come up with questions to look up online and dig deeper into their learning. I crowdsource my test questions, asking my students to come up with good questions that would effectively test their learning (at an understanding/not fact based level), and then I promise to use some of their questions on my tests (ironically, their questions are often harder/more complex than mine would be!). I find that while, at first students are uncomfortable with the task of creating questions, once we have done it together a few times, they enjoy the challenge.

Michael Wesch, in his amazing Ted Talk “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-Able”,  speaks about gauging student engagement by the questions they ask when learning. The typical questions that we hear from students sadly show a lack of engagement: “What do we need to know for this test?”, “How many multiple choice questions will there be?” “When will my assignment be due?” etc… Wesch passionately states, “A good question is one that leads you on a quest.”

The quest is lifelong, through our ups and downs and windy paths alone and together. There will always be more questions than answers, and questions that arise from existing answers. In the words of Rilke, let’s ‘love the questions themselves’.

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Inspired by the Internet

I remember being in my last year of high school and my father sitting me down in front of a computer screen, excitement in his eyes, saying ‘This is called the world wide web. It is going to change our world forever.” I remember feigning vague interest to be polite, but frankly, I didn’t believe his prediction. More than twenty years later, it is clear that my father was right.

Being on the young end of the Gen-X demographic, I am not a digital native and didn’t grow up online. Even among my age peers, I have been accused of being a luddite – I resist new technology and I have been slow to embrace this seismic shift in our society (ask my partner, who has been pushing me along for 15 years!). However, now that I have a smartphone and am connected to so many amazing folks through various social media (namely, Facebook and Twitter), I cannot imagine a day without the internet. And I am so thankful that it exists – I embrace the learning/teaching and collaboration/connecting that happens every day!

What I love most about the internet is the opportunity and experience of collaboration. Sharing and collaboration has been the cornerstone of what sets the internet apart from its ‘cousin’ screen – the tv. While the tv is one-way communication (we receive entertainment, news etc from it), the internet is (or has the potential to be) two-way collaboration. While we may use it as one-way consumers of entertainment or info, as a tv/book/magazine (ex. Netflix, youtube videos, articles etc), to me, the real magic of the internet is it being a tool for collaboration.

And to go one step further, for me, internet collaboration beats other forms of collaboration because it is open to the whole world, crossing all boundaries of geography, race, age, expertise, education etc. Collaboration through the internet has been termed ‘crowdsourcing’ (See Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crown is Driving the Future of Business by: Jeff Howe), which harnesses many people’s knowledge in order to solve a problem or create something. Another term used for this is ‘collective intelligence’, making the case that groups with their collective intelligence, have the capacity to far outperform individuals. And the theory behind the success of crowdsourcing is that diverse groups (and the internet is the epitome of diversity) outperform homogenous groups. As Howe argues in his book, ironically experts often experience greater barriers to problem-solving because their expertise narrows their ‘out-of-the-box’ abilities. Individuals with passion but without expertise come at the problem with a creative openness to fresh ideas.

The other critical factor of collaboration on the internet is that people are not being paid for collaborating. They are doing it for free. The motivation of a monetary reward is taken away, and that frees people to connect and collaborate based on their internal motivation – to make a difference in the world, to share their knowledge, to connect with others etc. Daniel Pink’s amazing TED Talk “The Puzzle of Motivation” illustrates what research already knows – monetary rewards stunt creativity, narrow thinking and limit the ability to effectively problem-solve.

The example of amazing crowd-sourcing internet collaboration that is most widely known is Wikipedia, where 31.7 million registered users have contributed their knowledge (with an estimation of 100 million total volunteer hours) and research has shown it to be just as accurate as expert-written encyclopedias. Here are a few other internet collaborations that I find incredibly inspiring:

  • Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choirs – Eric started the concept of a ‘virtual choir’ where people from all of the world join the choir, learn their part in a song and upload a video on youtube of themselves singing their part. The videos are all put together to make beautiful music and a virtual choir of thousands of voices singing together is unbelievably powerful! The most recent Virtual Choir was made up of 8,409 videos from over 100 countries in the world. You can read more about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choirs here, and check out the newest song, Fly to Paradise, here.
  • Participatory mapping projects – technology has been amazing in providing an opportunity to crowd-source geographically, so that maps are created to share information quickly and effectively, and to visually represent our communities accurately in real-time. There are lots of examples of participatory mapping – globally, Unicef is on the cutting edge of using mapping as a tool for social justice (one example – youth mapping environmental risks in their communities). And at the grassroots community level, participatory maps are being created using Google Maps to map out and better understand the underground sharing economy.
  • Sharing science and experimenting together: Michael Rubinstein is a computer scientist who created a ‘motion microscope’ that captures and amplifies the smallest of movements, so you can for example, witness the pulse under someones skin or the constant movement that is taking place in our bodies even when resting. But for me, what is more amazing than his invention, is that he is sharing his code so that others can play around with his tool and innovate further. On his website, anyone can download their own video and virtually try out his microscope to see what motion magnification will do. Through this shared technology, people have seen their babies wiggling around in-utero, their friends move differently (when they are supposedly standing still), and even their pets heartbeat. And the innovation continues.

And last but not least, I am very inspired by the “Humans of New York” site/Facebook page, where a guy named Brandon decided to photograph people on the streets of New York, and he now has over 12 million followers on Facebook (including me). His reach is so far, that when he photographed Vidal, a middle school student from a dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn who was inspired by his principal (who made him feel that he mattered), people were so inspired that a fundraiser raised $100,000.00 in 45 minutes and $1,400,000 in one month. What started out as a fundraiser for a class trip to visit Harvard (so students can expand their idea of their own potential), has now turned into a scholarship fund for students to go to Harvard! And of course, the first student who will receive this scholarship will be Vidal, who started this tidal wave of social media support.