Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The importance of asking questions

I read an essay by Martin Schwartz, who talked about meeting an old Uni friend who had dropped out of post-graduate study because they felt stupid.

Martin went on to explain why it was very important that we felt stupid. He said (2008, p. 1771):
I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It's just that I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn't know what to do without that feeling. I even think it's supposed to be this way.
In reading Martin's essay, this idea was a "What?!" moment for me.

When you undertake research, the thinking we put into scoping and asking the 'right' question is what makes the difference between not finding anything, and a significant discovery. We have to "design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occur" (Schwartz, 2008, p. 1771).

But what happens next is what is the really cool part.

Schwartz talked about talking to "Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn't know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn't have the answer, nobody did. That's when it hit me: nobody did. That's why it was a research problem".

Martin solved his research problem - as he said, once he realised that he could take the problem on and find a solution; that he had the power to make that decision and have a crack at it - an act of leadership - it wasn't that hard (2008).

The trick was to feel the right to have a go at trying to answer the question. To be that liberated, and let go of what we do know for what we don't. In his words, "our ignorance is infinite" (Schwartz, 2008, p. 1771).

We need to get used to asking questions, making mistakes in seeking the answer, suck it up, and give it a try again. That's science, and research.

And we don't teach that change in process well to our students: that we start with "learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries" (Schwartz, 2008, p. 1771).

We need to teach students that it is OK to ask questions, again and again, if we are to keep building those giant shoulders for future generations to stand on (Newton, 1686, citing Bernard of Chartres, 1189, Wikiquote, n.d.).


Sam

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