Friday, June 29, 2012


"It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room," warns an old proverb. "Especially when there is no cat."
I just finished reading a great little book, Ignorance: How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein. The book, while about science, left me questioning... How can the idea of ignorance be applied to every-day life or to education?

Having just returned from Alaska where one of the naturalists we hiked with was adamant that we all ask, "How do you know that?" whenever we are given "facts", this book came at a welcome time.

From this perspective, our reality may not be all facts and rules. It's more like the quote above: all black cats in dark rooms.

As for our system of education, perhaps teaching ignorance could be a way to begin... starting with what we don't know, what still needs to be done. In a letter to her brother in 1894, Marie Curie wrote: "One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done..."   Students can get out there and begin to solve the long list of mysteries and puzzles that may or may not have solutions; do the things that remain undone.

Questions, I'm finding, are more relevant than answers. Questions are bigger and more layered and more accessible  than answers. Perhaps we should all move our focus from answers and begin work on the questions.

Scientist Maria Chudnovsky says that a question is interesting if it leads somewhere and is connected to other questions. And often, the thing you find is not what you were looking for, but something unexpected and more interesting.

So what makes good questions and how do you come up with them? And how do you use those questions to better understand the world around you?

From Stuart Firestein's book, here are some "good questions" from his class:
  • What's one thing you'd like to know about X?
  • What's something you have so far failed to understand? 
  • What things aren't working? 
  • How often do you guess? 
  • Are you often surprised? When? 
  • What questions are you generating?
  • What ignorance are you generating? 

Perhaps one of the best questions we could ask ourselves is how we should educate students in the age of Google (and whatever will supersede it). Instead of an education system based on collecting answers, we should teach students how to think in questions.

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