A question is…a unique and potentially sophisticated instrument.

Are we asking the right questions? by Leon Neyfakh

A question is more than the simple thing we might think it is – it’s a unique and potentially sophisticated instrument.

– Leon Neyfakh in “Are We Asking the Right Questions” in the Boston Sunday Globe IDEAS section, May 20, 2012

Week in and week out, The Boston Sunday Globe IDEAS section offers one of the most interesting sites in journalism today. Their staff writers produce deep, probing articles that present original or complicated ideas in a fresh and informative manner.

This past Sunday, after years of admiring the IDEAS section, we were excited that our work was thoughtfully described by Leon Neyfakh in his article “Are We Asking the Right Questions”. After observing Joan Soble, an active educator on our online Forum discussions, deploy our Question Formulation Technique in her Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School AP Literature class, Neyfakh put his well-honed journalistic skill of asking questions to work and started to explore just what is the real significance of questions.

He found a “striking lack of scientific research into what our minds are doing when we ask” questions, especially “{g]iven how essential questions are to the way we communicate with each other.”

He went in search of answers to his questions. In addition to lengthy conversations Neyfakh had with Co-Directors Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana about the ideas in their book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press: 2011), Neyfakh interviewed Paul Harris of the Harvard Graduate School of Education about his new book, “Trusting What You’re Told” who argued that “that questions occupy a more central role than we realize in childhood cognitive development.” He also presented the ideas of former Hewlett-Packard chief technology officer Phil McKinney whose book, “Beyond the Obvious,” “argues that crafting good questions is precisely what allows people to make imaginative leaps.” And, he cited Duncan Watts, the author of the book “Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer,” (and who studies networks and collective social dynamics at Microsoft Research) who has “noticed that many of the PhD candidates he comes into contact with are essentially taught to answer other people’s questions, and can be disconcertingly at sea when trying to ask their own.”

Neyfakh proved to be a quick study and swiftly teased out the general importance of questions that has too often been overlooked or taken for granted. He wrote:

Wielded with purpose and care, a question can become a sophisticated and potent tool to expand minds, inspire new ideas, and give us surprising power at moments when we might not believe we have any.

The Globe’s IDEAS section often culls significant ideas from obscure research studies that don’t get much attention in the general press. Perhaps, it’s time to reverse that process with their most recent article. Where are the researchers who are ready to pick up on what Neyfakh’s article identifies as a “striking lack of scientific research” on questions and question-asking?


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