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Dean James Ryan’s prepared remarks at the 2016 Harvard Graduate School of Education Presentation leads to a surprising conclusion about the discovery of our belovedness:
“I’d like to talk with you about the beauty and power of good questions. To be specific, the title of my speech is “Three suggestions about asking and hearing good questions, including five examples of essential questions plus a bonus question at the end, the correct answer to which is ‘I did.’”
Cultivate the art of asking good questions.
“With your newly minted Harvard degree, you might think you are now expected to have all of the answers, and others might think the same, including especially those family members who financially contributed to your education here. More broadly, it’s obvious that we live in a world where people both want instant answers and are ready to offer answers (and judgments) at a moment’s notice. Indeed, this tendency defines too much of our public discourse, which is disturbingly shallow for just this reason.
I would urge you to resist the temptation to have answers at the ready and to spend more time thinking about the right questions to ask. The simple truth is that an answer can only be as good as the question asked.
Posing good questions is harder than it might seem… It’s hard because asking good questions requires you to see past the easy answers and to focus instead on the difficult, the tricky, the mysterious, the awkward, and sometimes the painful. But I suspect that you and your listeners will be richer for the effort, and that this will be in both your professional and your personal life.
For those who will be teachers, for example, you know that well-posed questions make knowledge come to life and create the spark that lights the flame of curiosity. And there is no greater gift to bestow on students than the gift of curiosity. For those who will be leaders, which is to say all of you, don’t worry about having all the answers. Great leaders don’t have all the answers, but they know how to ask the right questions — questions that force others and themselves to move past old and tired answers, questions that open up possibilities that, before the question, went unseen.
For those of you who will be researchers and innovators, remember this observation of Jonas Salk, who discovered and developed the vaccine for polio:
What people think of at the moment of discovery,” he observed, “is really the discovery of the question.
It takes time and work to discover the question. Einstein famously said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, and his life depended on it, he would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.
Asking good questions will be just as rewarding in your personal life. Good friends, as you know, ask great questions, as do good parents. They pose questions that, just in the asking, show how much they know and care about you. They ask questions that make you pause, that make you think, that provoke honesty, and that invite a deeper connection. They ask questions that don’t so much demand an answer as prove irresistible. My simple point is that posing irresistible questions is an art worth cultivating…
Five Truly Essential Questions to be asked regularly:
My claim is that, if you get in the habit of asking these questions, you have a very good chance of being both successful and happy, and you will be in a good position to answer “I did” to the bonus question at the end.
The first is a question my own kids are fond of asking, and it’s one you may have heard other teenagers pose — or maybe you still pose it yourself. The question is “Wait, what?” My kids typically pose this question when I get to the point in a conversation where I’m asking them to do a chore or two. From their perspective, they hear me saying something like: “blah, blah, blah, blah, and then I’d like you to clean your room.” And at that precise moment, the question inevitably comes: “Wait, what? Clean what?”
“Wait what” is actually a very effective way of asking for clarification, which is crucial to understanding. It’s the question you should ask before drawing conclusions or before making a decision. The Dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, gave a great master class this year, where he emphasized the importance of inquiry before advocacy. It’s important to understand an idea before you advocate for or against it. The wait, which precedes the what, is also a good reminder that it pays to slow down to make sure you truly understand.
The second question is “I wonder” which can be followed by “why” or “if.” So: I wonder why, or I wonder if. Asking “I wonder why” is the way to remain curious about the world, and asking “I wonder if” is the way to start thinking about how you might improve the world. As in, I wonder why our schools are so segregated, and I wonder if we could change this? Or I wonder why students often seem bored in school, and I wonder if we could make their classes more engaging?
Couldn’t we at least…?
The third question is: “Couldn’t we at least…?” This is the question to ask that will enable you to get unstuck, as they say. It’s what enables you to get past disagreement to some consensus, as in couldn’t we at least agree that we all care about the welfare of students, even if we disagree about strategy? It’s also a way to get started when you’re not entirely sure where you will finish, as in couldn’t we at least begin by making sure that all kids have the chance to come to school healthy and well-fed?
How can I help?
The fourth question is: “How can I help?” You are at HGSE, I presume, because you are interested in helping others. But you also know, from your time here, to be aware of the savior complex, of the stance where you are the expert or hero who swoops in to save others. We shouldn’t let the real pitfalls of the savior complex extinguish one of the most humane instincts there is — the instinct to lend a hand. But how we help matters as much as that we do help, and if you ask “how” you can help, you are asking, with humility, for direction. And you are recognizing that others are experts in their own lives and that they will likely help you as much as you help them.
What truly matters?
The fifth question is this: “What truly matters?” You can tack on “to me” as appropriate. This is the question that forces you to get to the heart of issues and to the heart of your own beliefs and convictions… You might ask yourself, in other words: what truly matters to me?
So these are the five essential questions. “Wait, what” is at the root of all understanding. “I wonder” is at the heart of all curiosity. “Couldn’t we at least” is the beginning of all progress. “How can I help” is at the base of all good relationships. And “what really matters” gets you to the heart of life. If you ask these questions regularly, especially the last one, you will be in a great position to answer the bonus question, which is, at the end of the day, the most important question you’ll ever face.
The Bonus Question
This bonus question is posed in many ways, and you have surely heard a version of it before. To me, the single best phrasing of this question is in a poem by Raymond Carver, called “Late Fragments.” It’s one of the last poems he wrote… [and] it starts with this question, what I’m calling the bonus question:
And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?
The “even so” part of this, to me, captures perfectly the recognition of the pain and disappointment that inevitably make up a full life, but also the hope that life, even so, offers the possibility of joy and contentment.
My claim is that if you regularly ask: wait, what, I wonder, couldn’t we at least, how can I help, and what really matters, when it comes time to ask yourself “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so,” your answer will be “I did.”
So the poem asks “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so,” and then continues:
I did./And what did you want?/To call myself beloved. To feel beloved on the earth.
The word “beloved” is important here as it not only means dearly loved, but also cherished and respected… let me just say that when I read these lines, it’s hard for me not to think about students. We spend a lot of time, here and elsewhere, thinking about how we might improve student performance, which is how it should be. Yet I can’t help but think that schools, and indeed, the world, would be better places if students didn’t simply perform well but also felt beloved — beloved by their teachers and by their fellow classmates.
To tie this all together into one slightly misshapen package, and to bid you a final farewell: As you leave… and head into a world that desperately needs you, let me express my sincere hope and belief that: if you never stop asking and listening for good questions, you will feel beloved on this earth, and, just as importantly, you will help others, especially students, feel the same.”
See link to watch James Ryan’s commencement address
I need not quibble with poet Raymond Carver who’s desire was to be able to call himself “beloved” – for the next line concludes, “to feel beloved on the earth” exposes the desire of every heart, and it is a profound gift. My point, made numerous times in various ways over the course of so many posts, is that we are made ultimately to hear the One who made us for Himself break through to our souls with the pronouncement “You are my beloved“, for we are never more assured of this fact than when we can finally hear Him say it into us.
For more, consider Jason Hague’s beautiful poem written for his son; it begins with a good question: “Reflection of Aching Joy.”