Saturday, June 20, 2015

You want change? Change your questions.

If you have ever tried putting a duvet into its cover, you know how hard it can be if you don’t first set the thing up correctly. What you do is you turn the cover inside out, stick your hands through while holding onto two corners, and grab the duvet corners and pull it through so that the cover now sits the right side up, with the duvet neat inside, then you have to put its opposite corners into the corners of the cover, and finally give it a shake to even it all out (Phew! That was hard to explain).

The point is, it’s the same thing when it comes to approaching problems: if we don’t frame the problem correctly, if we don’t set it up right, we end up frustrated, much like we feel with the duvet all bunched up in one corner of the cover.

I was helping my kid with a research project. The assignment was to explore if teens that view violent media and play dehumanizing video games are more prone to violent behaviour and likely to become desensitized to violence in real life.
My daughter had to formulate five guiding questions. As she researched questions, it became obvious to us that there were no right answers to the questions she was asking.  The true lesson that she learned from this exercise is that maybe her questions weren’t good ones: she needed to ask better questions.

She needed to look at how the conversation is being framed, who is asking the questions, how the problem has been tackled historically, whose voice is missing from the discussion, who has the most stake in the answer, who benefits etc.

For questions to be of any use they have to challenge assumptions.

Of course there was very little time to delve into new questions—which is the problem with the way we do things. We don’t give ourselves enough time to get to the questions that might inspire real change.

Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

We want solutions but we keep asking the questions we already know the answers to.  And the answers bring no revelation; they cannot surprise us, they are predictable.
But what if we asked this question instead of that one?  For instance, instead of asking how many windowpanes were broken, or how many counters were upturned in the recent Baltimore upheaval, the right question to ask is “why are young black men in the US being systematically murdered by police?”

The trouble is, we learn to ask questions that reflect our personal convictions and believes. We believe what we see and our interpretation of it, taking this as reality. But there are many realities: we have exhausted nothing.

We want change? Then we need to take it outside of our comfort zone.
In her book, ‘The Art of the Question,’ Marilee Goldberg said: “A paradigm shift occurs when a question is asked inside the current paradigm that can only be answered from outside it.”

Small children and scientists are good and doing this.
“If you meet a scientist, don't ask her what she knows, ask her what she wants to know. It's a much better conversation for both of you.” That's the concluding sentence to Stuart Firestein's Forum piece, in Scientific American (April 2012).

In 'What Science Wants to Know,' Firestein agrees that you have to know a lot to be a scientist. But that's not enough. "Knowing a lot is not what makes a scientist. What makes a scientist is ignorance," he writes. For scientists, the facts are just a starting place.
Every new scientific discovery raise new questions, so ignorance will always grow faster than knowledge. Firestein observes that one crucial outcome of scientific knowledge is to generate new and better ways of being ignorant: "not the kind of ignorance that is associated with a lack of curiosity or education but rather a cultivated, high-quality ignorance."
It’s the questions we are asking that we need to talk about if we are hoping to make the changes we want; trite, lazy thinking produces quick shallow responses—and that’s not going to get us very far.

Published in the  (The art of asking).

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