How Do You Answer a Question?


walk in spaceSo why do astronauts bring their own cameras to the Space Station?

These are the most highly trained people in the world. They know what they have to do during their mission down to the number of turns to install a screw, and have trained for 10 years to do 6 days of work. They know all the answers – they’ve seen every piece of equipment they will use and run thousands of simulations – it’s meant to be boringly routine by the time the real thing comes about.

But still, they bring their own cameras, like tourists, and we all know the reason. It’s obvious. Human curiosity goes beyond all the facts – it lives in wonder and it lives in the unexpected. It lives in a world of Ideas. Pursuing Ideas, not answers, is what we do.

One particular show exemplifies this: the CBC Radio 1 show “Ideas” –  inspiring because it addresses the human aspect of curiosity. Each episode covers a single Idea with a capital “I”: Examples include: “What is Beauty”, “Our Relationship With Dogs”, “In Praise of Ice”, and “The Death of the Book”.

Experts are interviewed conversationally and a story naturally unfolds from their personal relationship with the big concepts. Jargon is absent, the discussion is personal. What is your relationship with what they do and explore? How has it changed you? How has it made you, You?

The topics are chosen as a broad curriculum of science and humanities. You can’t fail to to be inspired by something, but not just because it is new, and not just because there are remarkable people speaking, but because the story is engaging.

The show grabs you with seemingly simple questions that likely have been sitting in the back of your mind and validates them as more than just idle musing; when so much curiosity is addressed with pat answers or diversion, this program says, “yeah, we were wondering the same thing…”

It never pretends to have answers, but instead presents viewpoints of people whose passion it is to think about these questions. None are represented as absolute or right, but subjective viewpoints – “What I think”, and also “Why I started thinking this way”. The wonder, passion and curiosity of the people make the topic engaging and approachable. So much of this is lacking in conventional education. Here’s three viewpoints on why this may be the case:

Removing personal human experience from answers reduces their power. We are curious. We explore. We ask and seek. A person asks a question because they are personally curious and feel the start of passion or frustration that they want to address. There is motive. Textbooks do not have motive. Answers presented as facts with a beginning and end do not have a motive. They simply exist as monuments and not signposts. Instead, the focus on the people that ask similar questions  and have explored them in a their own way; this brings with it a closer relationship and a validation of curiosity as a social exercise. Mentors are simply fellow questioners, not static sources on a lonely path of inquiry and response.

Presenting answers as self contained, complete, and absolute can punish curiosity – A question has momentum, direction and purpose – it’s not a target to be hit with the One Right Response. A question is the start of something – maybe something big and life-changing for the questioner – and the response should reveal a piece of the terrain that could be explored with this momentum of curiosty. The last thing a question should do is meet this momentum head-on and stop it cold.

Answering curiosity is much more than giving an answer; it is choosing to engage the questioner with your viewpoint. It’s not an opportunity to cut off further questions but to shape and encourage more powerful inquiry – to make a better questioner that can seek the next piece of the puzzle, and the next one after that, and ultimately to make their own pieces to fit.

This applies to any field of education. Answers that lead to more insightful questions are a success. Rewarding curiosity is one of the most human things we can do.  It’s not Questions & Answer, it’s wondering and wonder. I’ll cover what this can mean in practice in Part 2.

(image from CBC)

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