Learning How to Ask Questions Again

It was a bright and sunny day at the state fairgrounds last Saturday at the Youth Jamboree. Boyscouts and Girlscouts abounded: riding horses, walking over small challenge courses, learning broadsword sparring, eating, and more. There we were, four ladies manning the booth for the wildlife center, letting kids pet snakes and lizards, showing them a screech owl up close, and making sure nobody walked out without some brochures and hand sanitizer.

Out of the three other volunteers, I had only met one before. So I struck up a conversation with another one of the girls when the crowd had gotten smaller on the account of lunch. Abby (whose name has been changed) was a student at a local college, finishing up her Freshman year. Of course, she asked me where I went to college. Something in the air that day was making me extra confident and sure of myself, so it simply rolled off my tongue that “I am doing my own college – participating in a lot of internships and volunteerships like this one…”, which was excellent, considering I had not done so well in that area with the dental hygienist a few days prior.

I then asked Abby what she was majoring in. “I haven’t declared a major, yet,” she shrugged. That led me to ask what she was thinking about. “I don’t know, maybe English or something,” she shrugged again, seeming rather like she didn’t want to talk about it. I told her that English was a great idea right before we were mobbed with more people.

When I work events, I like to hold the animal in such a way that it catches the public eye and leads them into our booth. Kids and sometimes adults immediately start asking questions… how I love it when the kids question everything! They are so fascinated by animals they don’t normally get to see and pet, and they want to know all they can about them. I eventually find that a good way to segue into, “We have our own festival coming up soon!” and “if you want to come hang out with us and the animals more, we actually have a whole bunch of animal camps!”

Abby, on the other hand, had a surprisingly different approach.

“These are our non-releasable program animals,” she would tell people as soon as they came into the booth. She went on to educate them on what “non-releasable” meant, why our animals were non-releasable, and shoved some brochures in their hands.

When there was another lull in the crowd, she said to me: “I hate it when there are kids that come in and start asking questions! They never give me time to talk!”

The comment caught me completely off-guard. All I ended up saying was: “Um, yeah.”

Out of curiosity, what would you have said?

The point of this is not to make myself look good or Abby look bad. She was a very sweet girl with many good qualities. It was simply these couple of interactions which stood out to me and led me to start thinking – are both the urge to ask questions and the desire to answer them eventually squashed by compulsory schooling?

Regardless of whether this is caused by mainstream education, I have suddenly realized that I have almost completely ceased asking questions. Or, if I do ask them, I do not actually knowledge that I ask them: I either dream up a solution so the question doesn’t exist for long, or I go research it out without giving much thought to the fact that what originated the research in the first place was a question.

This is unfortunate.

My 10-year-old brother Robert has really been an inspiration to me lately. He has absolutely no qualms about asking questions – he is constantly inquiring about many things which have never crossed my mind to question before. Here are just a few examples:

“Why are water towers so high up?”
“In clay animation, how do they make things fly through the air?”
“Why are tires rubber?”
“Why aren’t roads rubber, so we can have metal tires?”
“Do British people not have coffee tables, since they drink tea?”
“Why are ant traps called roach motels? The roaches don’t even fit in there.”
“If we play ‘Uno,’ do Mexicans play ‘One’?”

One very simple question in particular stood out to me: “How do they make cheese?”

I said, being a know-it-all: “Come on, Robert, we know how they make cheese. It’s…. they…. I …. um…. oh. How do they make cheese??”

This led us on a long trail discovering how cheese is curdled (with Rennet), what Rennet is (an enzyme from the 4th stomach of an unweaned calf), and if cheese can be made in a way a little more cow-friendly (it can, with juices from a few plants, often thistles). I relayed all of this to my friend Liam, who then asked yet another question I hadn’t even thought of: “How did people discover that an enzyme from a calf’s 4th stomach curdled milk anyway?”

That still remains to be answered. If you know anyone who might know, please refer me to them.

So, these past couple of days I have been wondering, how does a person learn to ask questions again? Fortunately, asking a question about asking questions is a start.

On my friend Anna’s unschooling blog, Adversarian, she has an entry titled, “Questions Are More Important Than Answers.” Anna makes an excellent point about why it is better to simply have the freedom to ask the questions than have lectures thrust down one’s throat.

“Today I played a game:” she says: “I asked questions inspired by the things around me. The result? A list longer than even I had expected. I stopped playing after a few dozen questions.”

I think the first place to start is not to take anything for granted. Yes, flamingos are pink, but why are they pink? Why is a corn snake called a corn snake? How come earth worms are so hard to pull out of the ground? What makes the wind blow, and why does it blow in different directions? Why is the sea salty? What causes cats to purr? Who invented all these grammar rules we are supposed to follow? Why is Facebook called Facebook? What is the point of bumble bees?

I know the answer to about half of those questions; the others I had to contemplate before they came to mind. I had to stop and force myself not to take elements of my daily life for granted. Younger people seem to do this naturally; every time I work with kids, I always hear at least one or two questions I had never thought about. Sadly, I have to answer “I don’t know.” To those questions.

However, I found comfort in a small section about saying “I don’t know” in Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study: “…any teacher can with honor say, ‘I do not know’; for perhaps the question asked is as yet unanswered by the great scientists. But she should not let lack of knowledge be a wet blanket thrown over her pupils’ interest. She should say frankly, ‘I do not know; let us see if we cannot together find out this mysterious thing. Maybe no one knows it as yet, and I wonder if you will discover it before I do.’ She thus conveys the right impression, that only a little about the intricate life of plants and animals is yet known; and at the same time she makes her pupils feel the thrill and zest of investigation.”

Feeling “the thrill and zest of investigation.” Oh, how lovely it sounds!

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10 responses to “Learning How to Ask Questions Again

  1. Not sure what I would have answered. Not to be rude in any way to “Abby”, but am I mistaken in thinking one of the reasons you guys were there was to answer questions…?

    Anyway, I wanted to agree and add my own two cents. The reason younger children ask all these questions is simply that they’re entirely new to the world. So they need to ask these types of things. But shouldn’t they also be learning from experience? I think we’ve been removed from our natural environment and forced into cubicle (literally and figuratively) lifestyles, which alienates us from the normal way of life where information was passed on from generation to generation out of necessity. We don’t learn how to make cheese from Grandma, because she’s in a nursing home. And because we don’t need to. We don’t need to raise a cow and use it’s dairy. We just pop off to the local Kroger and pick out the cheapest, most brightly colored package. Let’s face it, shouldn’t we know how cheese is made by now? And shouldn’t we have learned by experiencing the actual process along the course? So in other words, you’re right. The only way to combat our own ignorance is to be asking as many question as we can about whatever we want to. I’m just making the point that somewhere along the lines it seems as society has manipulated us into not knowing much about anything except what “they” deem popular and/or profitable.

  2. This is a great post!

    I think that when people complain about others asking questions, it’s a conditioned type of response. People said it to them when they were young, and now they say it to others.

    Have you ever seen a toddler tell another toddler, “No, that’s a stupid question!”

    I’ve yet to hear an example: in my experience they always go and explore together!

    There are so many things we take for granted. Even though I consider myself a curious person, there’s still a lot I’ve yet to ask!

    To me, being comfortable with asking questions means means being comfortable about not knowing the answer. Most people aren’t comfortable with not knowing things, or being ridiculed. (More conditioned behavior!)

    People need to know mistakes, less-than-perfect memories and brains that can’t hold every bit of information, ARE natural and perfectly human.

  3. Most people believe the school way of doing things: adults ask the questions to which they already know the answers and kids parrot back. Therefore, talking is power. Question asking is conditioned out of us by school because if kids could learn that way, there’d be no need for school. And, if that wasn’t enough when I was a child, my mother and grandmother used to tell me, “Curiosity killed the cat.”

  4. You have hit upon something that many college professors complain about…especially about millenials (18-24). “I just had a class and no one would answer questions, and worse, no one asked them.” or “Why don’t students ask more questions in class and enter into discussion? How much more active and rewarding and interesting their learning would be.”

    Good for you for keeping your mind open to questions and new ways of thinking. You might have heard this before…Students enter kindergarten as a question mark and leave high school as a period. You’ve gotten in touch with your inner question mark!

  5. I think questioning is conditioned out of us a fair amount by school, but I also think it is a natural process of being an adult–knowing more. I think the process you described when you ask yourself a question sounds pretty natural. You don’t always have to ask someone else the question to find out. Maybe we think about it some more and realize we know the answer, or maybe we look it up on our own.

    When I was 16 and learning how to drive in California, I wondered why the lines on the highway were sometimes painted in long lines, and some times in short, hyphen-like blocks. Through observation, I eventually figured out that the shorter blocks indicated an exit lane.

    One day when I was driving with my mother to an unfamiliar destination, I told her she should switch lanes now or else we’d be shunted off into the wrong exit. She asked me how I knew that, and I told her about the blocks. She’d been driving for 30 years and had never noticed that pattern before.

    On the other hand, in high school, I would raise my hand and ask questions not because I didn’t know the answer, but because I could tell my classmates had misunderstood some concept, and the teacher hadn’t realized it.

    I guess I don’t ask very many questions because I really like trying to figure out the answer myself. Or maybe I just like seeming like a know-it-all… 😉

    And on that note, flamingos are pink because of the carotene in their food. They are actually born with fluffy gray plumage that is “dyed” pink over time.

  6. Ah, again you seem to hit the nail on the head.

    I’ve run into this little quirk of our current human nature myself, on more than one occasion. Most recently, I’ve become involved in an artist-centric chatroom on deviantART, the chatroom having a bit of focus on helping fellow artists learn their craft (through interaction; everyone in the chatroom has the shared goal of learning more about art).
    And right off the bat, there comes the problem of, people come in looking for teachers, rather than looking for information. “Oh, so this chatroom is like a school, right? Where are the teachers? When do you hold classes?”

    Sometimes you get some cases that just can’t wrap their heads around the idea of asking a fellow “student” for advice or help; they have their mind set on finding someone in a “teacher” position, and they just want the information fed to them.
    But I’ve found that, on occasion, people can be steered towards doing things for themselves a bit. Asking them questions in return, getting them comfortable.

    Still, it does definitely seem like something that’s been very nearly hard-wired into student’s brains from schools. Students are allowed to ask questions, but how often are they allowed to answer questions on behalf of the teacher? I’ve not heard of such an instance yet. It gets people stuck in roles of student and teacher, with very little opportunity to reverse or share those roles.

    …I appear to have rambled a bit more than I intended, but my ultimate point is that I liked this entry. Thanks. =D

  7. Geo,
    There are teachers/professors who use the Socratic method…or at least try to. I have been lucky enough to have such professors. Some don’t let their students answer. Some try to get students to answer and discuss, and the students haven’t done the reading so nothing happens. I was is a class once where the professor was trying so hard to get the students to talk/ask questions/etc. that she gave up and left the classroom saying that they obviously just wanted the knowledge poured into their heads and did not want to take responsibility for their learning. The next few classes were great after that.

    • Dr. S.,

      Yeah, I didn’t intend to say that there aren’t great teachers out there; your example is one instance of, in my opinion, one of the better ways to go about teaching a class. How can you expect people to learn if nobody’s genuinely interested in the subject? Asking questions and making learning an interactive experience is a great way to build interest.

      As a small aside, I’ve employed the Socratic method myself from time to time, but never actually knew it had a title (nor that it had a semi-widespread use). I do thank you for bringing that up. =D

      • D-Geo,

        Thanks for the clarification. That helped.

        I want to share a story with you that takes another perspective on this conversation and, perhaps, deepens it.

        When I was in graduate school, I was doing some research in a new area. I hoped that my work would answer some major questions and discover some really neat stuff.

        One day an expert in the field came to visit my thesis supervisor, and he set up a meeting so I could talk to her about my research. I asked her a lot of questions to try to get the answers I needed to help my research.

        We met for about 15 minutes. She was courteous and listened to me patiently. Then she said only one thing to me. At the time, I was upset that she didn’t answer my questions and help me. But now I know the value of what she said. It has stayed with me, and I pass it on whenever I can.

        She said, ” It’s not about the answers. It’s about the questions.”

        She was trying to tell me that if I was not asking the right questions, I would not get the answers I wanted. That I should be more creative in my question asking. That I should question my assumptions. That just asking a question was not enough.

        Dr.S.

  8. This is my first time on your blog and immediately, I was intrigued by your title. Your post did not disappoint!

    I agree with most of the comments above, but Anna’s are particularly relevent in understanding the answers to the questions you ask about. . . questions and answers. I just got myself all wrapped up in that sentence, didn’t I?

    What I mean is that the issue discussed above is all about feeling comfortable or not. Generally, people just aren’t comfortable with not knowing something.

    When you’re very young, you’ve got no (or very little) ego issues; you can ask questions freely and know that because you’re young, you aren’t expected to already know the answer.

    As you get older though, not knowing an answer could be embarrassing because, perhaps, you think you ought to have already learned the answer to the question. You graduate from school, you get a degree in something, and now you’re done answering all the quesions from your learning institutions. And what does your degree prove? That you have answered, over years of time, a sufficient amount of questions correctly.

    Now if you don’t know something you’re asked, you think that perhaps it’s because you weren’t well-educated. Deep down you’re suspicious that the degree doesn’t mean what you thought. Then follows some guilt and shame. That triggers the ‘fight or flight’ stress response, and bam! you’ve got discomfort.

    Now, as for reasons why you stop asking questions. . . how about the conditioning that occurs when you’re young, you ask a question, and it’s met with annoyance. Or what about the situation in a classroom when there’s no time for your questions. Or if you want to know something, you’ll have to look it up yourself and you’re so weary after 7 hours in the classroom that you just don’t care anymore. Asking questions doesn’t get you anywhere, so you give it up.

    Sadly, all that is human nature. We can rise above it with either humility or desire. Humility is needed to recognize there’s plenty that hasn’t been learned (even with a degree of some kind). And desire is needed to learn. When your desire to learn overcomes your desire to protect your ego, you no longer have discomfort with questions or answers.

    That’s my 2 cents….Thanks for the thought-provoking post! I’ll be back to read you again!

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