While we share three drives with other primates – the need for food, shelter and sex, there is one key differentiator and that is a human being’s ability to wonder why and ask questions. Around the time our children turn three and start speaking properly, they can send us round the bend as they ask countless ‘why’ questions. This amazing set of skills, however, is at the heart of developing their curiosity – an essential part of deep knowledge acquisition which, in turn, leads to innovative thinking.
There are three parts to the skill of asking questions in both children and adults:
- You discover you know you don’t know (essentially acknowledging your ignorance and that you have information gaps – curious people put their ego aside when they acknowledge their own ignorance)
- You are able to imagine different competing possibilities/answers/solutions
- You understand you can learn from others by asking questions
The interesting thing is that questions lead to more questions, or not. In the case of children, the response they get to their repeated and probing questions is extremely important to keep their sense of curiosity alive. Curiosity is a feedback loop based on asking questions. When feedback stops, questions stop coming. This is not to say you should provide answers to all of your child’s questions, immediately. In fact, the opposite is true. You should frame your responses with further questions to push them to dig deeper for themselves, such as, “That’s a really interesting question, what do you think/where do you think you could find more information about this?”
Curious learners go deep and wide. When children have to make more effort to find answers the learning deepens moving information from the working memory to the long term memory. When children turn information over and over and find meaning in it, they turn it into knowledge. Contrary to popular thinking, children actually do need to develop a rich bank of knowledge in their own brains rather than relying on Google, their external brain. Without this internal knowledge bank it will be difficult to discover connections and innovative ideas over time.
“Machines are for answers and humans are for questions,” says Ian Leslie in his excellent book, Curious (Quercus, 2014). All innovation starts first with a question. Google can help you discover some dots (facts), but it can’t tell you what you ought to be asking. An incurious person may not even question the first thing that comes up on Google! “The truly curious will be increasingly in demand. Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests; who have a strong, intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems and ask penetrating questions.” He goes on to explain that the world needs billions of enquiring minds to solve global issues and that enqiring minds will be an organisation’s most valuable asset.
So, keep those questions coming!