A friend asked me to repost this from a previous iteration of my blog.
I teach at a university where professors are encouraged to teach students to “think critically”. This is a worthy goal, and one I support. But after a few years of teaching, I’m beginning to believe that as hard as I try, and as many times as I put it down as a goal on my syllabus, assign things that make it a priority or push the students to think critically, it’s just doesn’t reach them. Why?
Students don’t know what thinking critically means.
It’s not really the student’s fault, we are using words students don’t use. For most students in this generation, they have been told exactly what to learn, what topics would be on the test, and they’ve been evaluated on the test that they were taught to pass. We have done an extraordinary job of teaching most students to figure out what the right answer is. The problem is, a lot of the questions that we want our next generation to answer don’t yet have an answer. And we’re teaching them to look to us to find the answers.
Houston, we have a problem.
We need a future generation that is willing to see more than just the problem. We need more people who think in innovative ways about how to reframe, solve and work through the large social problems we have. We need to mobilize creatively and passionately. And we really need more critical thinking to get there.
How do we solve the issue of students who don’t know what critical thinking is? I’ve got an idea. Rather than using difficult to define (and uber pedagogical) terms like “thinking critically”, let’s reframe what we’re saying.
Let’s start asking beautiful questions.
Beauty? Uh oh. That sounds subjective. What do you mean by a beautiful question?
Thing is, I find knowledge beautiful. When a really good question emerges out of an article or a book or a conversation, I get knocked over the head with it. To me those questions are just like an amazing red rose flowering in the middle of a garden or a gauzy pink and orange sunset. I want to enjoy the kind of beauty that comes with deep inquiry. A beautiful question is one that inspires more knowledge, encourages deeper thinking and makes me take the time to really engage. These questions burn with a kind of clarity make you want to take a look.
It’s why most academics became academics. Why teachers get excited about what they teach. It’s what makes us go “Cool!” when there’s a really interesting book, idea, concept, article or conversation.
A beautiful question is a question that does one or more of the following:
– Asks the listener think about a topic in a unique, different or interesting way.
– Calls to question the basic assumptions, premises or understanding that the topic takes for granted.
– Points out something that was previously unseen or unacknowledged.
– Links multiple topics together.
Here’s the crux: A beautiful question will always lead to more questions. That is the beauty of such a question, it doesn’t stop. A beautiful question asks everyone who comes into contact with it to respond. Not everyone will respond of course, that’s free will. Beautiful questions don’t rest, but rather are generative. These are the questions that create more than they stay still. Beautiful questions inspire discussion, debate, engagement, inquiry and reflection.
Beautiful questions are also really HARD.
They can be hard to ask, they can be hard to formulate. They aren’t always easy to ask someone else, and people don’t always like hearing them. Beautiful questions can be challenging to those who are in authority. They can rock the boat, upset the status quo and make people mad.
That’s ok. It’s part of their charm.
Beautiful questions are also different for different people. There are some things that we can agree on as beautiful, but there is always someone who finds a sunset boring or a red rose allergy inducing. Beauty IS subjective. And so questions that are beautiful are going to resonate with some people and not with others. That’s also ok, it’s why we each get to approach these things from different perspectives. It’s why we need some people to find data on ice flows beautiful while other people find grassland ecology or behavioral energy consumption patterns fascinating.
My point is this: we need to teach the joy of a good question, and to encourage more people to start playing with questions, talking about them, and trying to figure out pieces of them. We need more people who believe that it’s OK not to have the answer, that in fact, they’re doing it right if they are concerned and confused, if they’re not sure what’s coming next. I don’t think we can adequately prepare for a world of uncertainty and challenging social issues until we decide that it’s ok to ask deep questions and not know the answer.