I started 2015 asking, what, I thought, was a bold, reflective question for the year. It was our first morning in Havana, and we were introduced to the ceiba tree and her place in Cuban history : meetings, prayer, dreams, wishes, gratitude. I took a solemn walk around the ceiba tree three times, asking for clarity for the year ahead. My professional and love lives were exploding in ways that felt beyond me. I hoped that the ceiba would help me quiet my heart and brain, and eventually show me the right paths for both sets of complex needs.
My ask for clarity was steeped in doing life better. Work better. Love better. Improve outcomes. Change behaviors. I thought those would be the right answers and that the ceiba would help me
figure out how to execute them. As 2015 draws to a close, I have certainly gotten the clarity that I asked for, but the answers were not what I wanted. Here I sit, nursing a broken heart, on the other side of a painful work transition, and questioning everything again. Before the ball drops this week, I want to commit to asking the right questions for 2016, not necessarily getting the right answers. Something manageable between « What is the meaning of life ? » and « What are my interim goal metrics ? »
This weekend, Ravi Gupta penned an article about the need for students to engage in deep questioning. « When a student does not have courage, time, and space, their questions are often basic or vague — and sometimes don’t even
end with a question mark. Can you help me? . . . I don’t understand . . . This is hard. » Sound familiar ? He’s described my ask for clarity perfectly. I hadn’t asked a deep question, but made a vague plea for help. What if I had applied his advice for how schools can teach students to question, to guide my adult inquiry ?
There is a gap between what we ask for, what we can intuit, and what we actually need to learn. In Ian Leslie’s forthcoming Curious, he focuses on the paradox necessary to remain curious— understanding enough about something to find it interesting, but not having the answer be so complex that questioning is overwhelming and unattainable. The right question fits uncomfortably in that space, inspiring us to ask and giving us hope that the answer(s) are totally within reach.
This fall, I started asking myself questions about my beliefs in education, trying to test how I wanted to serve my professional purpose. Those questions were a step up from vague clarity, but they were still statements in disguise. They were really easy to answer and justify with rich examples from my work. I had brilliant responses to those questions, because they didn’t force me to reconsider my position, to adopt a different perspective, or to learn. Then it occurred to me that I couldn’t answer my own question with the same knowledge that asked it.
So I went back to my inquiry and, this time, decided to ask my peers and colleagues around the world to weigh in. Not just the peers who would mirror my perspectives, but those who had completely different ways of seeing the question. In One Good Question, I ask international thought leaders and doers in education to reflect deeply on their country’s investments, policy, and practices. Throughout the fall conversations, every interviewee noted that facing the One Good Question challenged their own thinking (victory for questioning !). For many, they were unsure if their country leadership was asking themselves this type of essential question to inform education design/reform. How many of our country policies, state priorities, and school practices are based on the right answers to the wrong questions ?
There’s an inherent tension about the urgency of public education transformation. I get it.
We don’t feel like we have the luxury of time to reflect, iterate, and deepen adult learning because we’re trying to make swift, scalable transformation for all kids. But if, as leaders- and I mean all of the ways that we lead in this movement — we’re asking the wrong questions, those « wrong » questions will still give us answers. If we’re not asking complex enough questions, we might even be convinced that we have the right answers.
The questions that we ask matter, so we should give ourselves the time and space to ask the right ones.