Quick. Take a shot at this. What are the top questions that you were asked as a child? Come on, take a shot.
Did they resemble this set?
1. What is your name?
2. What is your father’s / mothers / brothers / dogs / name?
3. Which school do you go to? Which class do you study in?
4. Who is your best friend in school?
5. What is the name of your class teacher?
I remember getting plain bored with these questions. Sometimes answering the same questions to the same folks in the same birthday parties with a year’s difference. My answers wouldn’t have changed. But hey, neither did their questions.
To figure out why at all anyone would be curious about my class teacher’s name, was clearly beyond me. But that question always managed to shove a frog down my throat and I suddenly became interested in the cake. Or whatever was the nearest object.
Cultures pass down furniture and jewelry as heirlooms. I guess with many of us, these questions get passed down as intact heirlooms ready to be deployed on the nearest kid available. Incredible isn’t it. That these questions are still in vogue.
I know that these questions are still in vogue, for I caught myself asking these questions in yet another random birthday party!! The needle on the time machine has moved on to bring in french-fries and burgers to birthday parties, but left these questions as religious relics of sorts.
There must be strong reasons why these have survived. Well, for one, they are easy to ask. And almost everyone that asks has been asked the same question. Two, It usually gets a definitive answer. Dug out of memory.
Three, It is safe territory. The kid has been that question a zillion times before that. Usually, the kid doesn’t ask ‘what do you think?’ when you ask them ‘what’s the name of your class teacher?’.
Questions can do many things to children. They can help sharpen the memory, or maybe, even their routines. And many times, get a conversation started! And these questions are super good value at that. The trouble is many of us don’t go beyond these questions!
There however are another set of questions. Those that shape imagination. Those need some effort and involvement. Definitely more than ‘what the name of your class teacher?’ There is very little a child has to do to ‘IMAGINE’ the name of the school, the class teacher or the class.
As a young boy my dad introduced me to a very old friend of his. For the ostensible reason of learning ‘English’ and ‘correct grammar’. Am sure you have a point or two about how ridiculously lousy my English grammar is. But then, I ended up learning several other things from him. He was a frail old man and all I remember is looking forward to talk to him. In retrospect, I think it is because he never cared for my class teacher’s name!
‘Why is banana yellow’ he would ask. And I would rack my brains and ask him, ‘Why’? He would shrug his shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know’. ‘How about finding out’, he would say. That used to be my quest until the next weekend when we would usually meet.
“If there is one thing about your shirt colour that you would want to change, what would that be?” He would ask and after parsimonious sipping of some filter coffee accompanied by disproportionately loud slurps he would ask, ‘why?’. The ‘why’ would reek genuine curiosity. Once I got started speaking, he would let me go. On and on. Nodding. Leaning forward. Smiling. His parsimony was not restricted to the coffee sips, but also extended to what he spoke!
As the weeks flew by, he would extend his hand and get the next available object out and place it on the teak table in front of him. “Now, let’s go”, he would say. The game was simple. Each of us had to write down as many questions as we could about that object. It could be a banana. It could be the day’s newspaper. It could be his glasses. His cycle keys. Whatever. We had to think up as many questions as we could.
Some we answered then and there. The rest of the week, was usually spent in quest of the answers that we couldn’t find. Those were pre-google days.
I was gripped with intrigue and joy in that quest for questions, even as the world around me was looking for answers. More often than not, one thing leading to another and a thought train that would touch the sky.
I didn’t think of it as big deal back then. But as I tumble around in the corporate world, and as Microsoft Word keeps correcting my grammar I sometimes wonder about my time with him. And when I chance upon such stuff like this in the Boston Globe and other stuff like this in the Harvard Education Letter, I realise what a gift he left me with. He was a man ahead of his times.
All that I recall was that I could ask questions. So could he. I could be curious. So could he. There was nothing wrong with ‘I don’t know’. For he himself would say that often. When the questions are right, the answers usually flow! He taught me that the joy was in the search.
So the other day, I narrated all of this to the missus. And told her about my grand plan to ask questions that would spark our daughter’s imagination and let her mind roam the blue sky. The missus crosses her hands shakes her head, tilts her chin and asks, ‘So you think, that would give her a complete education?’
‘I think it will’, I say, emphatically. And then realise who I am talking to. I issue a correction. Thinking of the frail old man who would have said, ’I don’t know. But how about finding out’!
This post was originally written for Parentous.com. But wouldn’t you agree that the skill in asking the right questions can often determine where a project or strategy is headed? The more the skill to ask the right questions the better the chances for the conversations to move to a higher orbit!
What do you think?