I once gave a lecture to executives of a media company and later found myself talking with the CEO. He asked me about major demographic trends in the country, and I asked him about challenges facing his company in the future – acquiring staff with the right technical skills, leadership in the company, gaining the right information to guide decisions.
He said that he really never had a problem finding answers to questions that anyone might pose. He claimed he could always find someone in the company to dig up the relevant facts, or he could bring in a consultant with the requisite answers. The scarcity that he continuously felt, he asserted, was the formulation of really good questions. Knowing what questions to ask, judging whether he himself was asking the right questions, discerning whether his lieutenants were asking the right questions – those were the things that kept him up at night.
I find myself coming back to that statement from time to time. Increasingly, I wonder whether it’s deeply related to what higher education is facing this century.
My memories include a set of classes on research skills that I taught, where, after a couple of editions of the class, I realized I was teaching it in exactly the opposite way that I should. I was having the students read journal articles. They had been taught over and over again to read articles to extract from the writing a set of facts. They knew how to do this quite well. They would be able to recite the key findings of the pieces with ease.
What they were not doing, however, was identifying what didn’t appear in the articles. What did the authors fail to do that should have been done? In short, what questions were not asked prior to the work? What unanswered questions were motivated by the findings of the work?
Universities are very expert in transmitting the current knowledge in our fields. We update our classes each edition to assure that we are relevant to the latest developments. We give the best set of answers for the given moment. We do indeed teach the critical skills that are needed to identify weaknesses in a piece of work; we often have students suggest improvements in a piece of work based on very close reading of the work. This critical review can sometimes reveal new questions but often identifies better ways to garner an answer.
To form the leaders of diverse fields for the future, I suspect, we also need to teach the students to ask the right questions. As the CEO said, the ability to ask the right questions is an important vehicle for advancing understanding.
It might be interesting to focus more direct attention on the anatomy of a question in different fields. What makes a good question? What kind of question forces a different perspective? What type of question suggests new ways of proceeding?
A good question probably has to offer a guide to what is not known; that is, what information, if it were available, would answer the question? A good question probably has an answer that fills a real gap in how we understand the given domain. If we knew the answer, the pieces of our understanding would fit together better. A good question, once pursued, probably suggests new ways of thinking about old problems.
It would be fun to play with the idea of classes whose products are not answers, but questions. Like the CEO said, once we identify the important questions, our search for answers has much greater promise.