There are all kinds of questions. Those that, when answered, hold us accountable: what town does a character in a book live in, what color are his shoes.
There are questions that, when answered, show that we are more than attentive to details — we are thoughtful. For example, Marie Laure in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is bereft of both literal and symbolic things – blindness, certainty – and in observing that, we reveal ourselves to be engaged, reflective, even empathetic.
And then there are those questions that we can’t so easily dispatch. Classic literature like The Scarlet Letter provides infinite examples. Why does Hester Prynne protect the identity of Pearl’s father even though doing so only adds fuel to the fire of Salem’s disdain? Further – is she a victim of love, or naivete, or a person in control who chooses a noble course of action, or something completely different? And, further still, is the desire to protect another’s reputation above one’s own a universal human striving, or something unique to certain people or societies?
These are the questions we don’t know the answer to until we compose them. And sometimes we don’t know what these questions are really about until we hear other people try to answer them. But one thing is for sure: our answers to such complex questions reflect much more than our knowledge of a set of facts – they show who we are and what we believe.
In a few months, I and two other teachers equally fascinated with the art of questioning will be presenting at a state conference on how to elicit more profound questions from students. We are reviewing Warren Berger’s inspiring A More Beautiful Question, which explores the importance of critical and active questioning in entrepreneurial and educational settings.
In the meantime, I am revisiting a realization I have had time and again as both student and teacher – that the deepest and most gratifying learning comes from moments of true confusion coupled with curiosity, moments when all we can do is ask question after question as we attempt to clarify what it is we really want to know.
After that, the hard work begins: looking for answers that we can verify, articulate, and live with.