Ask Questions Often; Question Sometimes

Tommy’s Tenacious Tumblerwith a title “What I’ve Learned About Smart People” states, “I have noticed one overarching theme among smart people: they ask questions. … If they don’t understand something, or even if they think they understand something, they’ll ask questions.”

Not only smart,  these people are are kind humans. They involve with a dialogue and show that they care about what we discuss, and that they value our views. They have child-like curiosity. They participate rather than sitting on a distant high seat of pseudo intellectual.

On reading Tommy’s blog, Kartikcommented. “Let me add another closely related construct. It’s that they are modest and humble. If someone believes they are exceptionally smart and it gets “into their head,” this creates a conceit that gets in the way of asking questions and eventually in the way of growing. But why don’t all humble/modest people ask questions. The other quality of these exceptionally smart people is confidence. If you are confident, you don’t have to worry about being a moron. So, I suspect one needs to be in that narrow corridor – confident but not conceited – to ask questions.”

When we are conscious of what others would think of our ignorance, it is difficult to ask questions. Seeking information, guidance and help is not demeaning – it is constructive and helps in strengthening bonds. Most people are glad to answer a question or be of help.

Ticket counters in London Metro do not open before 0900. Early passengers buy tickets from vending machines. One early morning, a group of people approached me at a Metro Station and said, “We are dumb Americans not knowing how to use this machine. Will you help?” I was glad to help. But in their position, probably I would have struggled for a while to find out how to operate the machine, stealthily observing someone else doing it. I could have missed a train by then. Those Americans were not dumb!

If we are not curious and not interested in a subject, we can’t think of meaningful questions. Often, students ask if the answer would help in scoring better in exam – not for the sake of understanding the topic.

At home and in early schooling age, parents and teachers can thwart the culture of asking questions by snubbing the children, by ridiculing their ignorance, and by not entering in to a sincere dialogue. If we grow with a conviction that ignorance is a shame, we would strive to hide it and dare not seek clarification. When we do not understand a subject and shy from understanding, we lose interest in the subject. Rituals of teaching, examinations, award of degrees and finding a job based on such qualifications continue. As parents and teachers when we do not have answers to some [many] questions from the children let us turn such situations in to opportunities to explore together and find the answers. We too have to ask many questions to the children with intension of learning from them – not to test them.

I spent a frustrating Friday correcting answer papers of post-graduate students of a college. One out of 31 did very well – most of the rest failed. Their seniors had told them that I would conduct open-book exam and the students chose to open a book on the subject for the first time in the examination hall. During the classes seldom did a student ask a question or betray interest in the subject. In the exam hall, every student had a fresh copy of the only prescribed text book, which had answers for some of the questions – but the book had no questions. Passages in the book had answers to some of the questions, but the students did not know which questions were answered there.

In this college we find a statement of Dr. H. Narasimhaiah, “Don’t accept anything without questioning.” He practiced and promoted inquiry instead of blind acceptance. But, in his institute, to get even a single question from the students during classes has been almost impossible.

I am now questioning myself (not asking a question.) I am questioning my abilities as a teacher, ability to enthuse students, to convey meaning in the subjects taught. I share the blame for poor performance of the students.

We questionwhen we do not trust something or someone, when we do not accept what is done or said. If someone questions us, we often tend to justify ourselves, transferring the blame on to someone else. Some get offended when questioned. Questioning the status-quo, long-established beliefs is necessary for growth. In 16th century, Copernicus questioned the theory of Earth-centred universe, a belief held for thousands of years. Many such scientists faced inquisition for questioning religious beliefs.

Questioning as a disruptive method, without conviction is counter-productive. Questioning with arrogance, to prove our superiority or to express lack of trust won’t help in building good relationships or new discoveries. Let our questions be trusting and constructive.

Dalai Lama: “They [doctors and scientists] were talking about the brain and stated that thoughts and feelings were result of different chemical reactions and changes in the brain. So, I raised the question: Is it possible to conceive the reverse sequence, where the thoughts give rise to the sequence of chemical events in the brain?”

This profound question from Dalai Lama led to research for a couple of decades, opening up new dimensions in understanding the working of human brain and treatment of neurological disorders. We now know that thoughts produce chemicals and we can at will produce chemicals that can cure our ailments.

In “Argumentative Indian,” Nobel laureate Amartya Sen discusses how public debates and inquiries were part of Indian culture. Seeking knowledge by asking questions is replete in Indian epics and scriptures. Is that a lost art, leaving us basking in past glory and not applying its essence to our life?

Let us question less and ask more questions. More importantly, let us not confuse between questioning and asking a question. When people ask questions if we think that they are questioning us, we cannot promote dialogue and can’t build healthy relationships.


About pgbhat

A retired Naval Officer and an educationist. Has experience with software industry. A guest faculty at different institutes and a corporate trainer with software development companies.
This entry was posted in Communication, Everyday Life, Social Issue. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ask Questions Often; Question Sometimes

  1. Kartik says:

    Good point, uncle. I completely agree.The distinction between asking a question versus questioning is subtle and one that is useful to master.


  2. Albert Einstein says the striking character in any intellectual is being inquisitive. If you are curious to know, you will always look young.
    Curiosity to know is the basic quality of every student. It is sad to see many students lack curiosity to learn.

    As you rightly mentioned passivity in students is seen in schools and colleges; it is a very dangerous development. Teachers need to promote the attitude of ‘asking questions’. We need to create awareness on benefits of questioning. In every class at my school, I encourage students to ask questions.


  3. Pingback: Right questions , right answers « Rubber Tyres –> Smooth Rides

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