Asking the right questions

We professors are creative a lot less of the time than we might think we are. We must drive the education scholars crazy because we so often teach in the same old tired ways of 500 years ago, despite strong evidence that better ways exist. Even when we do incorporate more active learning into our classes, we have a hard time letting that part count for much. We seldom jettison exams.

Even in our research we are less creative than we might be. How often do we do something that has been done in another species or system, repeating it and finding the same thing, or a small difference? I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I think there are good reasons for it. Creativity is hard. Change is hard. If you innovate constantly, your publication rate and that of your group will fall. Most new ideas are wrong. I hope you figure out your own wrong ideas before you get too far with them. We try to do that.

Planning a new project with Jason and Kim

It’s Saturday, so I’m not getting my morning fix from the creativity course from Andy Burnett. I miss it! Yesterday was the amazing piano stairs video. We’ve learned to list out all possible ideas for solving a problem before choosing among them, what they call diverging before converging. This is because the best solution may be lurking in a non-obvious place. We’ve learned to state problems in a positive way, how might I exercise more, for example, instead of why don’t I exercise enough.

A recent assignment I really enjoyed involved thinking hard about whether we were asking the right questions. I went through the day pondering that one, wondering what the right question was every time it came up. It was really helpful and I hope I keep doing it. The point of it is that you can’t solve a problem if you aren’t really asking the right question.

Here’s a fairly trivial example. My husband comes into my office to ask if I would like to eat lunch now. I might answer yes because I was hungry. But hunger can be easily satisfied in minutes at the desk. For us, lunch is really a social, sometimes scientific occasion with our lab group. So, I should answer yes at the time the others are most likely to be there.

Celebrating acceptance of one of Neil’s creative papers. Yes, we have champagne at lunch (sometimes)!

So, for these two, the questions might be, are you hungry, and do you think the others are eating now? Since we all want to eat together, we actually have a convention. We try to make it to the lunch room around 12:30. So, the question wrapping up everything would simply be is it 12:30? If it is, I would like to eat lunch now.

Try thinking about all your questions and see if you can articulate the cluster of real questions behind them. If there is something you want to do but are not doing, going after the real questions can help you get going.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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One Response to Asking the right questions

  1. Jeremy Fox says:

    Agree that to choose your question, you really need to think hard about why you’re asking it. I have an old post on some common-but-weak reasons for choosing a question:

    http://oikosjournal.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/advice-weak-reasons-for-choosing-a-research-project/

    I also have an old post in which I suggest (following Peter Kareiva) that choice of question may not be as important as how we go about answering the questions we’ve chosen:

    http://oikosjournal.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/why-i-dont-care-what-the-biggest-question-in-ecology-is/

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