What’s in a Question? | By Shakib Rahman

“Mommy, why is the sky blue?”

The next time your hear one of those deceptively simple questions that small children have an ample supply of, remember that you were once like that too.  You too had an endless stream of questions about the world around you. It seems that with age comes wisdom and the tendency to ask less and less of these questions. Actually it seems that creativity, or rather divergent thinking, also slows down with age. Sir Kenneth Robinson, an author and educational advocate, eloquently stated the premise with the following scenario.

“How many uses can you think of for a paperclip?”  He suggests that normal people can come up with between 10 to 15, genius level divergent thinkers can do 200.  But there’s a catch…

The people tested weren’t adults they were kindergarten children. A preset score was set and anything above this was designated as a genius level of divergent thinking.  In kindergarten, 98% of the children were above the genius level.  These same kids were tested again five years later, and now only 50% of them were genius level thinkers. It only got worse when the kids were retested another 5 year later.  So what happened?  Well you could argue, and Robinson does, that education is at the root of this deterioration.  He argues that we lose our creativity as we go through school, and ask fewer questions as we go through life.

Maybe it’s more of a shift in focus, from learning why things are the way they are, to how they work.  We all transform from children with an innate curiosity of the world around us, to focusing on the facts that we know, or need to know.  Multiplication tables, subject-predicate agreement, additive (or subtractive), color theory, and the cell cycle. We have gone from learning about what we want to learn about to learning about what we have to learn about.  Our education is been focused on learning the basics in a wide array of topics so we can get a proper education and eventually a job. But that’s not an inherently bad thing.  It’s just the way the education system is structured.  Go to class, read the notes, study for an exam, pass the exam, get a good grade, repeat for other classes, and then do it all again the next year.  Sound familiar? It should.  If you do it enough times you can get a degree, diploma or certification.

Often you are stuck learning what others tell you to learn rather than learning through personal inquiry and discovery.  Throughout grade school you didn’t really have much of a choice, you had to take the prerequisites to get into university.  In university things are a little better, but only slightly.  You do want a degree after all so you’ve got to take classes that will help you graduate.  What classes you take within your area of study are now your own choices (for the most part), but there are always degree requirements to fulfill and of course the ever present prereqs.

What I’m getting at here is that we have lost that encouragement and environment we had a children.  We no longer ask the simple questions about the big picture, but rather the more complex questions about the details.

Is Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 1 phosphorlyated on Tyrosine 1045 or 1197?

Does the quintet set of peaks for 1,3-dicholroethane show an enhanced or distorted signal intensity in ethanol?

Maybe it’s because the simple questions can’t be answered so simply.  You can always tell a child that the sky is blue because of the way that light bounces around the air.  And yet, once we grow up simple answers aren’t so convincing. Indeed, the answer lies within Rayleigh scattering. Blue light, a short wavelength, is scattered less in the in the atmosphere and so the sky is blue.  It’s that desire to learn about the world around us, ask the (sometimes blindingly) obvious questions, and discover the answers that we have seemed to let go of.  Connecting with your inner child isn’t always about playing with games and making a mess, it can be a serious thinking exercise too.

And with that I’ve stumbled onto another curious quandary: Why is water wet?


Image CC Katerha on flickr

Related posts: