How to ask questions
A new hotness in traditional education cultures started a few years back and was called “inquiry-based learning“. It meant just what it was called: learning based on inquiry, on motivating students to ask questions about whatever was being presented to them. It was about starting a conversation.
The trouble with asking questions, especially in a group, is it reveals what we don’t know. It’s a social contract. By asking questions, great ones or not-so-great ones, we are entering into an agreement to reveal our ignorance and thereby be judged by our peers, whether or not they have better questions and/or the guts to ask them.
Many teachers talked about ways to encourage the asking of questions, how to create safe peer-model environments to facilitate the inquiry-based leaerning and all were met with mixed results at all levels of education, be it lower elementary or higher education. The only takeaway anyone could accurately glean is this: the majority of students are either not trained to ask questions from an early enough age to make it count OR people just generally shy away from asking questions in groups for fear of looking stupid.
So, this got me to talking to some of my pals who are directly involved with this sort of thing. One of them, a PhD in Educational Psychology, reaffirmed this. He told me that, yes, most of us are not comfortable revealing what we don’t know. Do online forums alleviate some of the risk? I asked. Sometimes, he said.
I am grateful I started my educational adventure in Montessori, where asking questions is the whole thing. I even love learning to ask questions better, in multiple contexts. There is no such thing as “inquiry-based learning” in Montessori schools because every kind of learning is inquiry-based, sort of like “organic vegatables” in the EU. There is no such thing because all vegetables are organic, having outlawed the use of any GMO or synthetic method and/or tool. They grow vegetables the way people have grown vegetables for centuries. If it isn’t broken…
This is how Maria Montessori felt about children and learning. She felt that no one understands the way children learn better than the children themselves. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Just hang out, be patient and wait for the miraculous machinery of learning to unfold, as each child is afforded opportunities to discover their own learning style and thereby their own identity and place in a global culture. Now, of course, this is no magic bullet and doesn’t work for everyone. It does, however, work well for a lot of us and we can see its influence at all levels of learning cultures today.
The Montessori Mafia
Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, videogame pioneer Will Wright and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, not to mention Julia Child and rapper Sean “P.Diddy” Combs, were all trained in Montessori schools in their early years. Here’s a whole other list, including Taylor Swift, among those already listed here and more. A few years back, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the Montessori Mafia. Certainly some polarized politics here, too, but it’s worth noting how many successful minds the method has produced.
Takeaway: if you are exposed to Maria Montessori’s innovative and child-centered methods as a young student, it can do no harm to your overall creativity and predisposition to accomplish cool stuff as you grow and learn to ask questions. As traditional classrooms begin to follow this model more and more, we can only expect to see an overall improvement in student confidence where asking questions is concerned. In the Montessori environment, learning is about having a conversation, asking questions and learning to ask better ones.
Is there something going on here? Is there something about the Montessori approach that nurtures creativity and inventiveness that we can all learn from? As a wise mentor once told me:
If you are trying to teach fish how to swim, it helps if you put them in the water.
In other words, let kids tinker with stuff. Let them find their own way. Give them some time to figure it out on their own. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were famous life-long tinkerers, who discovered new ways of doing things by constantly improvising, experimenting, failing and retesting. Above all they were voraciously inquisitive learners and, yes, question askers.
The Montessori learning method, founded by Maria Montessori, emphasizes a collaborative environment without grades or tests, multi-aged classrooms, as well as self-directed learning and discovery for long blocks of time, primarily for young children ages 2 1/2 to 15, with high schools modeled on the approach beginning to emerge.
The Montessori Mafia showed up in an extensive, six-year study about the way creative business executives think. Professors Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of globe-spanning business school INSEAD surveyed over 3,000 executives and interviewed 500 people who had either started innovative companies or invented new products.
“A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity,” Mr. Gregersen said. “To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different).” One may argue that “thinking differently” could be defined as asking questions or, perhaps, asking new questions.
When Barbara Walters, who interviewed Google founders Messrs. Page and Brin in 2004, asked if having parents who were college professors was a major factor behind their success, they instead credited their early Montessori education. “We both went to Montessori school,” Mr. Page said, “and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently.”
Will Wright, inventor of bestselling “The Sims” videogame series, heaps similar praise. “Montessori taught me the joy of discovery,” Mr. Wright said, “It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori…”
Applying it to the world
Meanwhile, according to Jeff Bezos’s mother, young Jeff would get so engrossed in his activities as a Montessori preschooler that his teachers would literally have to pick him up out of his chair to go to the next task. “I’ve always felt that there’s a certain kind of important pioneering that goes on from an inventor like Thomas Edison,” Mr. Bezos has said, and that discovery mentality is precisely the environment that Montessori seeks to create.
Neuroscience author Jonah Lehrer cites a 2006 study published in Science that compared the educational achievement performance of low-income Milwaukee children who attended Montessori schools versus children who attended a variety of other preschools, as determined by a lottery.
By the end of kindergarten, among 5-year-olds, “Montessori students proved to be significantly better prepared for elementary school in reading and math skills than the non-Montessori children,” according to the researchers. “They also tested better on “executive function,” the ability to adapt to changing and more complex problems, an indicator of future school and life success.”
Of course, Montessori methods go against the grain of traditional educational methods. We are given very little opportunity, for instance, to perform our own, original experiments, and there is also little or no margin for failure or mistakes. We are judged primarily on getting answers right. There is much less emphasis on developing our creative thinking abilities, our abilities to let our minds run imaginatively and to discover things on our own.
Google, for instance, didn’t begin as a brilliant vision, but as a project to improve library searches, followed by a series of small discoveries that unlocked a revolutionary business model. Larry Page and Sergei Brin didn’t begin with an ingenious idea. But they certainly discovered one.
Similarly, Amazon’s culture breathes experimentation and discovery. Mr. Bezos often compares Amazon’s strategy of developing ideas in new markets to “planting seeds” or “going down blind alleys.” Amazon’s executives learn and uncover opportunities as they go. Many efforts turn out to be dead ends, Mr. Bezos has said, “But every once in a while, you go down an alley and it opens up into this huge, broad avenue.”
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that Montessori alumni lead two of the world’s most innovative companies. Or perhaps the Montessori Mafia of can provide lessons for us all even though it’s too late for most of us to attend Montessori.
We can change the way we’ve been trained to think. That begins in small, achievable ways, with increased experimentation and inquisitiveness – rather than discouraging it, encourage all kids to ask more questions. Those who work with Mr. Bezos, for example, find his ability to ask “why not?” or “what if?” as much as “why?” to be one of his most advantageous qualities.
Let us begin to see a new and improved pattern. Instead of being so sure of ourselves, perhaps a new humanity will emerge, accepted not only for its effectiveness, but also for its cool. To many, like me, being good at asking questions is cool. Since we can only be good at that, might as well, instead of thinking we have any or all the answers. Especially since we have none.
Are questions the new answers?