Question Based Academics

Posted on by John Olesnavage

I taught a Psychology 101 course at a local college for a few semesters and each time  assigned one short paper.  In that paper students had to demonstrate the ability to formulate a single question, a question they genuinely did not know the answer to and one that affected their life.  They also had to devise a strategy to pursue an answer.  The one catch?  They had to submit their question prior to writing the paper in order to verify authenticity.  I turned many back for re-working.  Students often had great topics, but no real question, or not one they cared about in any special way.

Students in the course accused me of unfair practices, of trying to trick them, and some even said it could not be done.  Why?  Because we live in a world that honors answers, not questions.  Students as young as first grade are taught to avoid questions that do not have readily available and verifiable answers.  Teachers know that papers are not written anymore, they are Googled.

Our ability to access information on the Internet is all well and good.   But, iconic breakthroughs need a person willing to ask the right questions.  Albert Einstein was a master at asking questions.  At one critical point he asked himself what it would be like to ride a light beam through space.

A question based academic system would look like students being encouraged and rewarded for curiosity, for asking questions that appear strange and silly, not connected to data gathering and information retrieval.   These would be questions like Steve Jobs asks on a daily basis.  Term papers and dissertations would be graded on whether a student was able to generate authentic and original questions.  Research would be based on questions that are  platforms for future development.  The emphasis would be more on the journey itself and less on the end product.

Our current system of discovery is built on “tweeking” what we already know based on existing technology.  An academic system should be producing students with big questions and the commitment to pursue answers to those questions even if it is beyond what our current technology can deliver.  In the academic system I propose students would be awarded Ph.D.’s in a particular question, not an academic field that already has a fund of knowledge waiting to be tweeked.

My Powerful Question is a program that helps participants discover the question that captures their passion and propels them to a clear definition of their life’s mission.  Expect to hear about new achievement and breakthrough from graduates of this program.   This is not thinking out-of-the-box.  It is an entirely new box.



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