When I was small–whatever age it was that afforded me the luxury of riding around in the back seat with no more obligation but to look out the windows, and this, of course, was a request from the front seat in an effort to stave off the inevitable car sickness that came with that luxurious back seat riding around–I imagine I asked my share of questions about any number of things I might have seen outside my window.
On one such drive around the Twin Cities area, I saw a billboard for an ice cold glass of milk. As best as I remember it, the sign featured a lovely woman’s hand holding a carton of milk. As is typical for me, I remember the ad far better than I remember the brand, so I can’t tell you whose name was on the side of the carton looming high above our little red 1971 Toyota Corolla wagon somewhere between Point A and Point B on I-35W. The woman–or at least her disembodied hand–was pouring a tall, clear glass full of milk. And I had a question: how could so much milk be pouring out of the carton (as though it were tipped nearly to a right angle) when it was barely tipped at all?
It may have been true that my parents were weary of a car-sick question-asker in the back seat, but I like to think instead that they were the sort of smart people who knew what to do with questions: take them a step further. So rather than giving me an answer on their own (which they may have suspected would only lead to more questions), they suggested I write a letter to the Naegele Advertising Company, as it was called in those days, and ask the advertising executives instead of my parents. So I did.
Not long after, I received a letter back from someone at Naegele who was tasked with answering pesky questions from elementary school kids who knew nothing about physics but who could tell you any day of the week how far a guy has to tip a milk carton before it spills. The answer was honest and taught me more about the advertising business than physics: the carton looked better and the brand name was more readable if it was upright, he said, so it was done with “trick photography” (what we used to call the hocus pocus of film before Photoshop was born). The sign company rep was only half right, of course, but I didn’t send a follow up letter to point that out. The brand name may have been more readable from the back seat of a Toyota wagon speeding along at 60 miles an hour or so, but an upright carton gushing milk like the cat knocked it over didn’t look better. It looked ridiculous.
In A More Beautiful Question, author and master questioner Warren Berger considers why children ask so many questions (and perhaps more importantly, why they stop). He cites child psychologist Paul Harris who claims that “a child asks about forty thousand questions between ages two and five.” Assuming I asked the average number of questions, it’s a good thing my parents did not encourage me to write letters for each one, though perhaps this could now (with other people’s children) be a potential solution to the financial woes of the postal system.
Berger suggests that this rapid-fire questioning is at least in part related to the rapid brain growth occurring in young minds, by which one could conclude that as that brain growth becomes less rapid, the need for questions diminishes as well. But he also observes that the slowdown in questioning appears to coincide with the start of school, and raises challenging questions as to whether the way that classrooms are currently structured serves to curtail children’s natural curiosity and willingness to ask questions. One of the conclusions Berger reaches is that traditional classrooms tend to focus on providing information (answers), often before the need (expressed as a question) arises. And as he notes from the research of math teacher Dan Meyer, “if a student thinks of a question him/herself, it is likely to be of more interest than someone else’s question.”
When I studied foreign languages, a significant threshold was crossed when I began to “think” in that language. And around here at Tweetspeak Poetry, you may have heard someone talk about “thinking in poems.” In his book, Berger champions the notion of “thinking in questions, ” an outcome of a process of learning to ask questions developed by the Right Question Institute which focuses not on answers, nor on debate over challenging questions. Rather, the process focuses simply on asking questions, making the questions better, prioritizing the questions, deciding how to act on the questions, and reflecting on what they’ve learned. The success the folks at RQI are seeing with both youth and adults seems to answer the question posed by Berger in Chapter Two: “Can we teach ourselves to question?”
We’re reading Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas together this month and invite you to read along. We invite you to share your thoughts, observations, and better yet, your questions in the comment box. Here are some questions to get you started:
Why do you think we “outgrow” asking questions?
What if we stopped giving answers and started asking more questions?
How could we encourage questioning in our daily conversations?
What if we tipped the milk carton on its side?
If you saw our A More Beautiful Question book club announcement post, you know that the author offered to stop by and answer questions you might have, so feel free to drop a question for Warren Berger in the comments, and we’ll ping him on Twitter to let him know we’re here, and invite him into the conversation.
Planned reading schedule for A More Beautiful Question:
March 11: Chapter 1 • The Power of Inquiry and Chapter 2 • Why We Stop Questioning
March 18: Chapter 3 • The Why, What If, and How of Innovative Questioning
March 25: Chapter 4 • Questioning in Business
April 1: Chapter 5 • Questioning for Life