The power of inquiry

“An answer is always the part of the road that is behind you. Only questions point to the future.”  Jostein Gaarder

The theory…

Good questions are catalytic and generative. They stimulate thought, curiosity, learning and are able to open up possibilities.

Identifying meaningful questions is an art that can be cultivated and learnt. The right questions can lead to the proverbial ‘paradigm shift’ and bring about transformative change.

Rather than write a long blog about the power of inquiry, I thought I’d just give some examples of what, in my view, are generative questions.

“How do questions shape our reality?

“What is lost when we just take majority decisions and don’t hear minority voices?”

“How do we create meetings (conversations) modelled on how people naturally communicate?”

“Why are we re-creating ways of talking (conferences, meetings, forums, committees, etc) that limit our creativity?”

“Why are we not bringing in the collective intelligence of hundreds of people but rather choosing over and over again to just listen to a few expert voices?”

On second thought, perhaps it is more about developing an attitude of curiosity rather than the questions themselves but I think a combination of the two is essential for anyone wanting to facilitating change.

I always try to ask questions at meetings but this is countercultural. More value seems to be placed on the person with a lot to say and who seemingly has all the answers and solutions.

Rather than listening to respond, I make myself listen in order to ask questions that open up alternatives or possibilities.

The practice…

In my experience many people (those who’s opinions are seldom sought) appreciate the collaboration that such an approach engenders but some (usually those who’s voices are legitimised by status) may not!

I used a variation of one of these questions at a meeting where an influential member of staff wanted to implement an initiative that he had heard about. He talked about running “vision casting” conferences, and bringing in experts on the subject to speak at these conferences, etc.

At an appropriate time, I asked what we would potentially lose if we only asked the ‘good and the great’ for their input and not use the significant talent, knowledge and experience of our own people? This question caught the imagination of others at the meeting and the intervention changed the trajectory of the conversation.

I thought it was a significant moment that illustrated the power of inquiry.

However, the person with the idea told me afterwards that he wanted his ideas to be simply accepted and implemented and that my intervention made the situation overly complicated and changed the essence of his suggestion.

This was in stark contrast to feedback I received from others who felt that the intervention helped generate support for the idea because it (a) addressed the issue of contextual appropriateness and, (b) generated ownership for the idea by invoking the collective wisdom of the group.

6 Comments

  1. Kris I would like to use this as a reference for the book I am beginning on Education. Having tried to stimulate questioning among secondary and F.E. students I found that many colleagues resented or misunderstood what I was doing.
    I gave merit certificates to pupils and students who challenged me whatever their motives. I was told I wad devaluing the merit certificates. This meant that only pupils succesful at the classroom game of giving teacher the asnwers which were wanted. Anyway the questions asked were always leading ones.
    My oldest grandson used to challenge his biology teacher, I took him and his sister to Creation seminars where real questions were asked. In School his biology teacher usually answered “shut up Jamie or you are in detention.”
    I conclude from this that schools do not educate since we are designed for questioning, as Socrates knew only too well. Our pyramid power structures resent this because they find questioning subversive.
    I note this attitude all through. Now retired and not caring who I offend, I find that politicians and ‘experts’ hate to be questioned, and yet as you so rightly observe the question tends to bread down the brick wall of paradigms, allowing freedom to explore ideas.
    Rationality need s people who question and education needs people to be taught to question. This would not be necessary if we allowed the natural curiosity of young children to develop by encouraging it and not saying. “Shut up and get on with your work”. This pharse seems to be well loved by teachers at all levels of our schooling system.

  2. You say that identifying meaningful questions is an art that can be taught. I would add that it is something which if followed up from the aholesale questioning for the sake of annoying adults as well as genuine want to know, we can encourage questions and rationality.
    Responding, “what do youmean by…?” will help rational thinking and enable the questioner to be more precise so moving towards ‘meaningful’ questions and questioning.
    I think that Postman and Weingartner in teh 1970’s Penguin Education specials took this up with education based on questions. Sadly our middle classes are those who have come through the school system with their certificates and so believe that their system is the best. They miss the Penguin education specials they were too long ago and were seen as subversive at the time. Indeed there was opne of the series called ‘Teaching as a Subversive Activity.’ This was based on the activity of questioning.
    Sadly by the time youngsters reach school age they have been inculcated with the idea that while it is o.k. for children to shriek and run about like mad things, it is not alright to ask adults questions since they hear them as a challenge to their quthority.

    1. Patrick. Thank you. I did read this way back when I had a year at Sussex Univeristy in 1972/3. Since then I have tried to empower the young with various ideas for encouraging dialogue and expression. I almost always found myself coming up agains barriers raised by other teachers. I was seen as doing subversive things from ‘rocking the boat’, to ‘letting side down’ and even encouraging children tobe disrespectful.
      One of the things I tried was having the children sit in a circle and one to act as chair person. I was not allowed to speak unless the chair approved. I called in the headteacher to see this experiment in education for democracy but I think she was less than impressed.
      Now I write, a variety of things from poetry to philosophy and fiction. I am working on a book critical of schooling at present. Only roughing out at present since i am also working on one on the afterlife in religious and Christian thinking.

      1. What a fantastic innovation. Shame about the head teacher but I bet the exercise left a lasting impression on the children and went a long way in their development!

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