The Art of the Question and of Letting Go: Skills for the 21st Century

23 09 2011

Last January during President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, the President was addressing the state of education in the United States and spoke about this being our generation’s Sputnik moment.

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon.  The science wasn’t even there yet.  NASA didn’t exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.  Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.

As I think about the intellectual energy generated by the sounds of Sputnik passing over-head and the birth of the space race, I can’t help but wonder where that energy is today. Whatever happened to the pioneer spirit of exploring the unknown? Where have all the questions gone? Looking at the state of education today, we are surrounded by answers to questions. That is, THE CORRECT answer to the question. But how about the art of asking questions? And, what happens when there is NO right answer to the question, or many right answers to the question. Even more perplexing is that idea that there is such a thing as “A” right answer. Yet, most educational assessments that are valued by society are metric driven allowing comparisons of one student to another, one school to another, one district to another, one state to another and of course, one country to another. So if we subscribe to the idea that there are right answers, what happens when we experience cognitive dissonance and our view of the world is challenged?

I find myself getting a bit tired of the talk about 21st century skills as if they are actually new necessary skills. Most of those on the list have close relatives that have always been there. Perhaps the problem is that we allowed these skills to disappear throughout the 20th century and we are now discovering they are necessary for truly meaningful learning and understanding.

So, while I agree that we need to bring back these “21st century skills”, I would like to propose two more skills that I believe are most important for the 21st century. Again, these are not new skills as you will see, they have been needed throughout history. However, one of these is woefully lacking in today’s fact hungry, test driven educational society and the other’s importance has risen because of the speed of change and innovation. These two skills are:

  1. The art of asking meaningful questions that lead to personal discovery and curiosity.
  2. The art of letting go of what we once knew to be true so we can explore and apply new truths as they are revealed.

The following two stories will illustrate the importance of these two skills in the past and why they are so important in today’s classrooms. As you read these two vignettes, I challenge you to look back at your classroom, your school, your assignments, your approach to teaching and learning and ask yourself, How am I doing in fostering and helping students to develop these two skills? Do my major assessments reflect an importance of right answers or great questions? Do my student’s actions and behaviors reflect the importance of the question and process over the answer? How am I helping students develop the ability to let go of old ideas and integrate new understandings in my knowledge schema? How am I personally doing with these skills as a teacher and a learner in my own right?

Opps…Now What Do We Do?
In 1953, Watson and Crick penned the famous words “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA)” and forever changed the world of science. They conclude their landmark page and a half article securing their place as giants in the world of science with the following words: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific paring we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” In essence, they had discovered the secret of life, what makes us “us”, how the code of life is sustained through a lifetime and passed on to the next generation. They had discovered a universal truth for all life. A,T,C,G was the base of DNA. They had specific pairings of A-T and C-G and that the sequence of ATCG told a story unique to the individual. This sequence was found in a double helical structure with a backbone made from deoxyribose and phosphates, again, another universal truth for all life. From the smallest bacteria to the largest of species to all human beings, the story was the same. At the base, our DNA structure was identical. Yes, the sequence was different and length varied with species but the basic building blocks for the code of life was universal across all living things.

On December 2nd, 2010, (incidentally my birthday) the world of biology was rocked by the following headline: “NASA Unveils Arsenic Life Form.” Now with a headline like that you might be thinking about aliens or certainly life on another planet or in another galaxy. However, the story is much closer to home- Mono Lake California. So what was so earth shattering about this announcement? You see, one of the main pillars of biology had just been challenged with a new truth: Not All Life Has The Same Building Blocks For DNA! It appears that there is a form of life, a microbe, that lives in the briny waters of Mono Lake. What is so special about this little microbe? It seems that its DNA has found a replacement for Phosphate in the backbone of DNA. Rather than Phosphate it uses arsenate thereby shaking the very foundation of biology. This finding has implications connected to virtually all studies in biology forcing biologist world-wide to rethink their world and what they thought they knew. The facts had changed. Truth as we knew it had shifted and we needed to adjust.

A Need for New Speed Limit Signs?
Now, moving forward to today. As you may remember from your last physics class, the speed limit of the universe is 300,000 kilometers per second, the equivalency of 186,000 miles per second. This speed limit is not just a good idea, IT IS THE LAW. That is until today-MAYBE (Sept. 23, 2011:Reuters)-. Such is the world of science. A group of scientists at the CERN research institute in Geneva is said to have observed neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. Now this may not seem like much but back in 1905, Albert Einstein proposed the Special Theory of Relativity essentially setting the speed of light the same for all observers regardless of their relative speeds and that all laws of physics are the same in any non-accelerated frame of reference. This theory set the top speed in the universe at the speed of light (sorry star trek) This theory has implications across a broad swath of physics and the natural world. Again, our understanding of what we think is true is challenged and we are forced to consider another possibility of what is true, another reality.

Closing Thoughts
The original work in these two areas was accomplished by individuals who did not seek right answers but chose to ask big questions. They did not seek to be right as much as to understand. This was the intellectual mind of Einstein and the intellectual climate of the day. It was the audacity to ask questions that fly in the face of what we know to be fact that has led to discoveries that provide a more accurate and complete truth. It is the process of developing the “Artful Question” and the ability to let go of old knowledge that allows us to discover the unknown. If this is truly our “Sputnik Moment” in regards to education, we need to return to the idea that curiosity and imagination are more valuable than knowledge (thank you Einstein) and set about developing curriculum and teaching methodologies that celebrate and value the question more than the answer. Imagine a day when students enter a class for their final exam only to be greeted by a blank canvas on which to develop the rational for the BIG questions illustrating their current understanding and their ability to independently learn more within that discipline. Since Einstein was great at getting to the point, I think it appropriate to end with these two quotes that get at the heart of these two “21st century” skills.

The Art of the Question:
Imagination is more important that knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire work, and all there ever will be to know and understand.

The Art of Letting Go:
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.




3 responses

23 09 2011
Grant Lichtman

You would love to hear what students do when given the sole task of asking questions instead of refunding answers. That is a primary subject of my book The Falconer and classes we have taught here at Francis Parker School, ongoing at Westminster Schools in Atlanta, and seminars to cadets at West Point. This is an essential skill of successful and happy people and was so long before the dawn of the 21st Century.

25 09 2011
Grant Lichtman

Forgot one other comment: the news from CERN is something we have been waiting for since reading either the Tao of Physics or The Dancing Wu Li Masters back in the late 70’s and 80’s. The idea that the speed of light is an absolute limit has been contradicted by thought experiments that demand that either it is not a limit or that all of quantum mechanics is wrong…and quantum mechanics is never wrong in experiments. If not in your library, another set of books to read. I use the ideas in my book and did in my class to get students to understand and question their personal worldviews. And now it looks like what many have suspected for many decades may come to pass!

2 10 2011

I think your overall poing is good, but I am not sure either of your examples is particularly useful. I’m not qualified to judge the faster-than-light neutrinos, but I will note that the researchers there were not asking that question. They were studying a totally different question about neutrinos, and found that some of their data looked a bit odd. The key thing is, they noticed this and rather than dismissing it, they went on to check and recheck and recheck, and then published, with the clear statement that they were not at all certain of the result, and they wanted others to check their work. Great science, but I am not sure it supports your thesis.

I am more qualified to talk about the arsenic DNA story. It is almost certainly wrong. The question is fine, and I have no problem with the choice to look for new kinds of life, but in this case the science was sloppy, the caveats ignored and the results overhyped. If you are looking for details, I will simply point you to an article in Slate and a couple of blog posts from its author.

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