Author: Warren Berger
Publishing Date: September 13, 2016
Pages: 272 (Paperback)
One of my favorite moments of the day is the end of my 4-year-old’s bedtime routine: we snuggle in his bed, sing a hymn, and answer his last questions from the day. Most nights we don’t make it through the song before the questions come pouring out. His questions are varied, ranging from vocabulary, to the pictures in the Bible story we just read, to questions about things he saw, heard, or did during the day.
This bookend to my son’s day is part of a period of intense curiosity in his development. In chapter 2 of the book A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger quotes a Newsweek story observing that “Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking” (44). This early but declining proclivity for questioning drives Berger’s book on questioning, the subtitle of which is The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. In the book, Berger’s initial premise is that most of us adults aren’t skilled questioners—that we’ve lost the curiosity and ability to ask questions.
If you’re like me, this might make your hackles rise a little bit, thinking that you ask plenty of questions. But, pause for a minute and consider—how many questions have you asked in the past 24 hours? Now, how many of those questions were easily answered by a quick “Hey Siri” or Google search? While we may be asking factual questions at a high frequency, my recent queries for “gluten-free communion wafer recipe” and “Thai restaurant near me” are unlikely to spark the breakthrough ideas that Berger believes drive innovation.
Berger’s book is a journalist’s quest to understand “the critical role questioning plays in enabling people to innovate, solve problems, and move ahead in their careers and lives” (1). He builds on his initial premise, that most of us aren’t skilled questioners, by providing perspective and resources to help improve our questioning skills in his five-chapter book. Each chapter addresses a different facet or application of questioning, starting with a statement as the title and then a list of questions that the chapter is framed around. Throughout the chapters, Berger addresses his questions by unpacking case-studies and giving short examples of questions that lead to innovative breakthroughs. Fittingly, then, in addition to having a traditional index, the book has a question index at its end.
In the first chapter Berger sets the motivational stage by describing the power of inquiry. He frames the chapter with the story of an innovator in the prosthetics industry, Van Phillips, who in the 1970s found himself questioning the status quo for trans-tibial prosthetic as the result of an unfortunate life event. Through the case study he introduces the power of questioning, and the benefits of novice or outsider thinking for innovating, observing that “one of the primary drivers of questioning is an awareness of what we don’t know” (16).
The second chapter, titled “Why We Stop Questioning” takes a hard look at the current prevailing educational paradigm, particularly the role that questions and answers play. As an educator and parent, I found this chapter fascinating, if not surprising. After examining the statistics about how decreases in questioning and disengagement in education correlate during the K-12 years, Berger explores how schooling might be built on questions. He considers a case study of New York City’s Central Park East schools during the late 70s and 80s and touches briefly on Montessori educational philosophy to help imagine what education that encourages questioning and curiosity might look like, before turning the lens on the current prevalent school model. While the general snapshot of education is anti-question, there are people working for change. He highlights work being done by a leader in questioning—the Right Question Institute, a small non-profit founded to advance the teaching of questioning skills. His conclusions are encouraging, in that he believes there are ways that beneficial changes could be made, but daunting because widespread transformation will take intentionality and effort.
The third chapter, “The Why, What If, and How of Innovative Questioning,” introduces a process for innovative questioning that Berger synthesized from his research into questioning. The single longest chapter in the book, this chapter is packed with examples and generalizable ideas woven together into practical ways we can help ourselves and others to question better, through a progression of questions leading from “Why,” through “What If,” to “How.” Reading this chapter will give you many ideas about how you could improve your questioning. It is also worth noting that in this chapter, Berger observes that good questioning can seem risky because it requires “being comfortable with not knowing” which means that “questioning is about exposing vulnerability—and being okay with vulnerability as a cultural currency” (80).
The fourth and fifth chapters look more closely at how these questioning techniques can be applied in the business world (ch 4) and your life (ch 5). Here, Berger’s questions focus more on addressing “how might we” questions around implementation challenges, encouraging his readers to start learning how to take questioning risks. In these chapters he also addresses the need for making time to question well, something which he observes is not encouraged by the constant connectivity in contemporary society.
Throughout the book, Berger makes a strong case that questioning is one of the most valuable skills that we can develop (or help others develop). On a personal level, as the mother of two preschoolers, I was particularly heartened by Berger’s observation that “when preschoolers ask Why, they’re not just trying to annoy adults or simply prolong a conversation—‘they’re trying to get to the bottom of things.’ In the studies, when kids were given actual explanations, they either agreed and were satisfied or they asked a follow-up question; whereas if they didn’t get a good answer, they were more likely to be dissatisfied and to repeat the original question” (42). This gives me hope and encouragement to answer my kids’ questions with patience and real answers.
On a professional level, as a teacher, this book has encouraged me to consider how to incorporate questioning skills into my classroom and has provided me with specific tools to start the process. It has encouraged me to explicitly consider how I can incorporate Montessori philosophy (one of my parenting-hobby passions) into my classroom design at the college level.
Overall, this book is an extremely worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in learning about the power of questioning, or in developing their questioning skills. According to a couple of Harvard faculty quoted in the book, “‘Known answers are everywhere, and easily accessible.’ Because we’re drowning in all of this data, ‘The value of explicit information is dropping’…the real value…is in ‘what you can do with that knowledge in pursuit of a query’” (23). Berger’s book is an engaging and encouraging attempt to point out to his readers that “forming questions helps us ‘to organize our thinking around what we don’t know’” (19) and thus to continue to learn.
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