Nobody is capable of knowing everything – this is undisputed. Individuals thus always have the opportunity to discover something new and to acquire more extensive knowledge. The constructive exchange of information and human interaction are an essential part of our everyday lives, which would probably come to a virtual standstill without questions. From an early age, we learn by asking questions, for which the reasons may vary. Questions enable us to satisfy our curiosity, accumulate knowledge, build interpersonal relationships, and achieve progress. This raises the question of the importance of asking questions in our daily lives. This post will look at how asking questions affects the learning process, why asking questions is a learnable skill, and how individuals, groups, and organizations can benefit from questioning.
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Various Appropriate questions create a link between talk and thought and can give meaning to a given context. The place where this is probably most important is educational institutions. Unfortunately, in many classrooms and lecture halls there is little room for (meaningful) questions. In most cases, teachers are authority figures, so that a distance is created between teachers and learners that affects the learning dynamic. Teachers ask questions to which they know the answer and expect learners to be able to answer them. The questions are rarely open-ended. Instead, learners assume that there is only one or a few correct answers. Rather than delving deeper into a question or situation, in this case they try to guess what the person teaching has in mind. While the educational apparatus relies largely on questions that focus on facts, the neglected, open-ended questions are precisely the ones that trigger an extensive thought process and encourage creativity. Often it appears that teaching is prioritized over learning.¹ Individuals often gain knowledge and skills not just by learning facts, but through interaction. An obvious example of this is learning a new language, where interaction improves not only general comprehension, but especially contextual understanding. Humans are able to adapt to a variety of situations by asking questions. Machines should also be able to learn in this way. Li et al. (2016) argue that almost all errors learners make can be assigned to three categories: Understanding, Reasoning, and Level of Knowledge.² Even though the authors refer to machines and robots in their work, there seems to be no obvious reason why these categories cannot be applied to humans as well.
Regardless of the individual situation a learner is in, inquiry can help overcome challenges. It does not matter whether the lack of necessary knowledge, the connection of knowledge, or general understanding is the cause of the difficulty. Asking questions and seeking meaningful answers is the essence of science, and without questions there can be no facts. Human curiosity is likely to serve as the strongest motive for this. However, while children almost always ask questions, the regularity decreases with increasing age. Since questions promote independent learning and stimulate critical thinking, this circumstance should cause concern and be regarded as a reason for necessary change. Instead of portraying oneself as “all-knowing,” admitting that one does not know something should be socially accepted and normalized. Asking meaningful questions is a skill that can and must be encouraged and trained. The role of a teaching person – detached from the profession of teaching – should thus be to ensure a safe learning environment and to act as a kind of catalyst.³
The great thing about questions is that they don’t even have to be voiced in order to have an impact. Questions are an essential part of honest self-reflection and thus serve as the foundation for continuous improvement and adaptation to a dynamic environment even when individuals ask them only to themselves. Learning is a lifelong activity, and no one can say at any particular time that this task is complete. If one follows this logic, there is also no justification for stopping to ask questions. Especially in groups, it must be assumed that there is always an opportunity to benefit from the knowledge and experience of others. Critical questions make it possible to assess what knowledge the individual, the counterpart or the team/group actually possesses. Conscious exchange with others often leads to interesting insights and new ideas. Individuals who do not ask questions deprive themselves of the opportunity to learn and benefit directly from the process. Time and time again, however, individuals seem to be afraid of asking “stupid” questions or making themselves vulnerable by asking a question. We should be aware that our behavior in such a situation leads to depriving the individuals concerned of the opportunity to grow as a person. It should therefore be in the interest of the community to create a safe environment where no one should be afraid of being judged negatively just because they ask a question.
Even simple questions can have huge potential for positive change. Only when someone is dissatisfied with the status quo and asks why certain things work the way they do can there be change. The same applies to innovations, as these inevitably only come about when there is a deviation from the norm. At the same time, breaking out of predefined structures promotes creativity, as individuals are no longer confronted with clear boundaries. The conviction that there must be a better way to do something goes hand in hand with the realization that this alternative is still undiscovered. In such a situation, the lack of knowledge can serve as a driving force for breakthrough research and continuous improvement. Moreover, it seems likely that one’s curiosity is related – at least in part – to one’s interests and preferences, and individuals are thus more willing to exert higher effort to seek answers to related questions.
The desire to ask questions and accumulate new knowledge goes hand in hand with human curiosity. At the beginning of every change, every innovation and every scientific breakthrough there is a question and the search for a plausible answer brings new insights and ideas. A world without questions is at a standstill and therefore there should always be room for meaningful questions in our society. The education system should also bear the great responsibility of supporting learners in their search for their own insights, rather than presenting them with only facts. School is a place that has shaped many people, and it can be assumed that those who have received the necessary support to explore and learn on their own initiative are also the ones who will move society forward with their creativity and pursuit of innovation. The next time we feel that someone is asking a “stupid” question, we should probably try to support the person rather than to judge them.
¹ Myhill, D., & Dunkin, F. (2005). Questioning learning. Language and Education, 19(5), 415-427.
² Li, J., Miller, A. H., Chopra, S., Ranzato, M. A., & Weston, J. (2016). Learning through Dialogue Interactions by Asking Questions. arXiv e-prints, arXiv-1612.
³ Vale, R. D. (2013). The value of asking questions. Molecular biology of the cell, 24(6), 680-682.