A Good Question is Better Than a Great Answer

February 22, 2013

Last week, I was asked to present at the Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco. The theme of the event was creativity and innovation and the sessions were filled with researchers and educators who were trying to crack the code of the creative process. What makes people creative and how can we teach them to do it? For teachers, I think it comes down to a simple principle … A good question is much better than a great answer.

Consider the question, “How does the federal government spend its money?” Although this question has a spectrum of possible answers that reflect a depth of understanding from a simple pie graph by departments to a detailed accounting of the budget, it has an answer. Given the data, whether democrat or republican, accountant or psychologist, male or female …. people would come up with very similar answers. This type of question puts up barriers to creativity and innovation by putting the students on a fact finding mission.

Alternatively, consider the question, “What is the proper role of the federal government and what services should we expect it to provide?” Answers can range from the “nanny state” to providing only for the common defense and everything in between. Students can be drawn into the debate and pointed toward philosophers and court cases to test their thinking. The limitless number of answers allows students to ponder all sorts of possibilities before narrowing their options and finally presenting and defending their answer.

The innovation process has two phases. The first phase is the creative brainstorming that relies on divergent thinking (generating many ideas). This is phase where you get to think outside the box. The second phase of innovation involves convergent thinking (combining ideas) that eliminates solutions which are ineffective or impractical and bringing together good ideas into the best result. In this phase, theories are tested, ideas are debated, and variables are weighted. Whether writing an essay or completing a project based on a question without an answer, eventually time runs out and, since the perfect solution is never achievable (because there is no “right” answer), a solution is selected by the students knowing that other solutions are also possible. Students then get to engage the logical and argumentative parts of their brain to propose and defend their best answer.

Some of us are better at this than others. The good news is that research proves that creativity and innovative thinking are both measurable and teachable. Creativity is not a characteristic fixed at birth by your DNA. Stanford University recently offered a free online Crash Course on Creativity and invited people from around the world to participate. It is clear that fostering creativity and innovation can only happen if students are asked questions that don’t have a predetermined correct answer. It is ironic that in an era of the internet where knowledge and facts are just a few keystrokes away, we actually live in a time where so much is unknowable. Many educators point out that today’s jobs require creativity and critical thinking to cope with ever changing technology and economic forces. Certainly, being able to cope with complex problems and create innovative solutions is more valued than ever in the workplace. But even more coveted are those individuals who know how to ask the right questions. Instead of problem solvers, they are the problem finders. Daniel Pink described this nicely in a recent interview for EdWeek.

“Problem-solving remains an important skill. No doubt about it. But problem-finding is becoming just as important, if not more so. In purely pragmatic terms, if a customer knows exactly what its problem is, it can probably find the solution on its own. It doesn’t need you. But where you’re enormously valuable is when the customer doesn’t know what its problem is, or is wrong about its problem. There you can make a big difference — by identifying problems the customer doesn’t realize that it has, surfacing latent problems, and looking down the road to anticipate problems that haven’t yet arrived.”

To sum up: Adequate teachers provide great answers. Good teachers ask good questions that push students through the process of innovation to come up with their own great answers. Great teachers inspire their students to become problem finders, to ask their own questions, and then passionately work to innovate solutions to those questions.

So get out there and start asking those questions that don’t have answers, and if we are lucky, our students will return the favor!

For more reading on this subject of teaching creativity, check out the NewsWeek article, “The Creativity Crisis”.