Why we should be asking BIG questions


Why is the sky blue? Where does the universe begin and where does it end? Why are some people rich, while others are poor? What does it mean to be "rich"? What is freedom? Why do we age and will we continue to age in the future? If the earth ends, how will it happen? If politics are broken, what's the alternative?

When was the last time you questioned one of life's big mysteries?

At The Alternative UK we're quite fascinated with the power of play and connecting with our childlike curiosity - check out this one on why we play (and how it can bring about the good society) and yesterday's blog on the One World Play project. In the process of designing the political laboratories, we're constantly on the lookout for playful methods to boost creativity and get us thinking in new directions. We recently came across education innovator Sugata Mitra's inspiring thoughts on the future of education. In 2013 he won the million-dollar TED Prize award which enabled him to begin a series of experiments in creating self-organised learning environments (SOLE) and helped launch the online learning platform for school kids, School in the Cloud, based around asking big questions like the ones above. 

And it's not just for kids. Us adults can benefit a great deal from unfolding the mysteries we wondered about as kids and perhaps never found answers to. You never know what you might discover in the process; news ideas, different ways of looking at the world, a subject to unfold further, fun facts for your next social event?

TED explains how it can be done:

Step 1: Set aside an hour to recharge your curiosity.

At the heart of Mitra’s School in the Cloud is a simple method known as a SOLEsession. SOLE stands for Self-Organized Learning Environment, and it capitalizes on two incredibly abundant commodities: curiosity, and information on the Internet. A session begins with an open-ended, thought-provoking question — for example, What would happen if insects disappeared? or, Why do languages die out? Kids spend 40 minutes doing online research in groups of four or five, sharing one computer and jotting down their findings. Then all the groups come together for 20 minutes and discuss their discoveries.

Why should a busy adult take the time to pursue a blue-sky question like this? Because most of us spend our days living in our own information silos, and it’s good to step outside of them. In pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, you’ll undoubtedly learn something new — or maybe you’ll revisit a subject you’ve avoided since high school (hello calculus!) and shake the cobwebs off your old learning, or reignite a passion you’d forgotten about. In doing research for the session, you’ll be forced to consult multiple sources and quickly find credible information — skills that are essential for critical thinking. And in the process of working with others, you could pick up tips, whether it’s a keyboard shortcut you never knew existed or a great YouTube channel to follow.

Step 2: To come up with a question, think big — really big.

By the time we’ve reached adulthood, we’ve long since stopped posing knotty, complicated queries — there are just so many more pressing professional and personal questions to answer. “Adults are more curious about the practicalaspects of life,” says Mitra. “If somebody says, ‘Here’s a cheaper way to buy a house,’ we’re interested. But if the same person asks, ‘Why do we live in houses? What made us move out of caves?’ that isn’t as intriguing.”

So how can you find your own meaty questions to unpack and explore? The easiest way: Ask a kid, or think of the last stumper — Why do we hiccup? How does a car work? — that a child threw at you. (You can also find a list of sample questions here.) What’s essential is to use a question that no one in the group can answer easily. It’s OK to pick one that’s related to your work, just as long as it’s not one that goes through your mind on any given day. For example, Mitra recently ran a SOLE for school principals in Hong Kong and their question was, What is the future of exams?

Step 3: Agree to disagree.

A SOLE is a safe space to practice what management expert Margaret Heffernan (TED Talk: Dare to disagree) calls “constructive conflict.” Disagreement and friction, far from being forces to avoid, can fuel learning and innovation by making you consider alternate opinions and approaches. Before beginning a SOLE, participants should be reminded to speak their minds and not worry about butting heads, Mitra says. This prompting can help us adults transcend standard politeness, and get us over another potent fear: looking dumb in front of others. “With adults, there’s often an initial period where everybody’s stiff. Someone will say, ‘I’m not very tech-savvy’ or ‘I don’t know anything about this’ and takes a back seat,” Mitra says. Assure people that any and all answers are welcome.

Step 4: Draw on the wisdom of the crowd.

One other major obstacle you may encounter: competition. Many adults are simply accustomed to working solo — to us, working together often means doing our own tasks while colleagues focus on theirs — not, usually, all of us doing the same thing together. If we have the same duties, we tend to compete, consciously or subconsciously. A SOLE, on the other hand, is about discovering and deploying the expertise of the entire group of people. “When ants build a bridge, it’s not each ant working alone,” Mitra says. “It’s a thousand of them building it together.”

In a session that Mitra ran with a group of 15 professors at the UK’s Newcastle University (where he is a professor of educational technology), he spotted a problem right away: “After getting their question, they each took out their computer and started working alone.” His quick fix: He restricted the group to a single computer per small group — the same setup as in the eight School in the Cloud learning labs in India, the UK and the US — and the dynamic changed. “They appreciated the fact that in a group, they could get to a more nuanced answer more quickly,” says Mitra.

Step 5: Repeat as needed.

Besides using SOLE as a team-building exercise at work, you could focus a session on brainstorming potential uses for a new piece of software, device or tool, says Mitra. Another potential application that he is exploring: SOLE in senior centers. At a nursing home in the UK, the participants in a session impressed him with how adeptly they drew on each other’s strengths while researching the question, What will be the effects of Brexit? “In one group, there was one woman and three men. The woman had Parkinson’s and said, ‘My hand shakes too much to use the mouse, but I can read very well,’” recalls Mitra. “So one of the men operated the mouse, and she read out loud.” The group ended up having a lively discussion that pushed far beyond standard answers.

“It’s a strange thing, how our minds change over time,” says Mitra. “Life seems to take away that wild curiosity we have as kids.” This, he says, is a shame. “I’d rather hold on to the big questions.” Wouldn’t you?