questions

Of cows and independence day!

The little miss, as is her wont these days, has been shooting me a heap of questions. There is not a thing that passes the attention of her senses that just passes by without a question popping up. Be it an earthworm, a snail, a ridiculous honk from an autorickshaw, the neighbour’s loud movie screening, the sartorial choices of her mom (& dad ) etc etc. You get the drift right?

Me and the missus have had to work overtime to ensure that we engage with each of her questions and give her answers. Most of the time she ends with a ‘whatever’ look. Especially when I attempt to answer. The missus fares better.

The ‘whatever’ look is what I remember my physics teacher reserving for me, in school.   She would ask a question and her eyes would droop so much that they would be waiting to roll down her cheek if I was late by another moment. Her shoulders would drop and a smug smile would lurk at the corner of her lip. Her whole body language would seem to be so much waiting in expectation of a ridiculously inept answer. I guess I met her expectations every single time. I would dread those classes.

It is kind of dreadful to think that the little miss reminds me of that time. The only difference now is that the little miss forgets the inept answer in a jiffy and moves on to some easier stuff at the wave of a hand. Like, ‘Can I go touch that cat Appa?’ Or even, ‘can we go say hello to the rain drop appa’? Now, these are like lifebuoys to someone in a cesspool. We survive with her kindness and love.

She has been excited about the Independence Day for over a week now.

“Appa, when are you buying me a gift?”

“A gift? But why?”

“It is India’s birthday appa!”

I realised that thats how Independence day has been positioned in her mind.  Gandhi, Nehru and the freedom struggle can come much later.  For now, if there are some festoons, cake, pizzas and a gift to boot, all is well. Fortunately, the gifts that she has demanded haven’t yet gotten to meaningless stuff that pops a hole in the pocket. A national flag was all that was desired this time around and was dutifully bought too.

So today, on the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, after the flag hoisting ceremony in the apartment complex where we live in,  came another string of questions.

“If we hoist a flag for India’s birthday, why didn’t you hoist one for my birthday?”

Patient explaining ensued.  Of India having a flag and it being a country and that individuals don’t have a flag etc. Inept answers, I can guess. With drooping shoulders she proclaimed, ‘Appa, once we go home, I am going to draw my flag. You have to hoist it for my birthday”.

I demurred in agreement. “My flag will have a cow and a cat in it Appa”.

“A COW?” I spluttered.   The nation would want to know now.  An involuntary muttering of ‘Holy Cow’ under my breath reached her sharp ear.

“Not holy cow Appa”, she said. “Just one nice cow”.

Silence ensued. And then with a momentary pause she asked, ‘what is a holy cow Appa’? I didn’t know where to start. Or end, for that matter. And then, she threw me a lifeline. Actually two.

“If you don’t like the cow, let’s just have the cat in the flag Appa. It is easy to draw the cat “.  A huge sigh of relief clung to the air as Lata Mangeshkar ruled the Independence Day sound waves of the apartment complex.

And then she said, “Can we go to the play area and slide Appa?”.  She was on her way to the play area and shouted out a changed plan.  “I have been on the slide for sometime Appa. Today can you push me higher on the swing?”

“Of course”, I said. “Of course”

 

Questions are answers!

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?’.

Kite Train

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? 

Some questions for L&D

How many times have you gone to a learning / HR conference or conclave and listened to speakers wax eloquence on any / all of the following topics ?

  • Relevance of L&D
  • L&D needs a seat at the table
  • L&D’s Alignment to business
  • How do we measure L&D / Kirkpatrick /
  • L&D’s return on investment
  • How do we work with Learning Styles

These topics have stayed on the discussion table for many many years now.

No, I have nothing against the topics per se. ( Only perhaps with this “learning styles’ stuff which is  fundamentally very wobbly ) That they are debated with passion and commitment Ad nauseam leads us to ask many questions. As a profession, the question that begs a convincing answer is this : “Have we moved the needle or are just flooring the accelerator and while holding on to the brakes!”

If there is still ‘DEBATE’ about the ‘relevance of L&D’ or for that matter “L&D needs a seat at the table”, it is but obvious that we still have a long distance to go in getting to be relevant in an organisation’s scheme of things?

Now, here is a simple question that a manager asked me many years back. “If you are making a difference to me, would you need to even have to talk about your work to me?” Ofcourse not, I thought, back then. That question needs no answer, to date!

The pace of change in the world can be mildly described as frantic and fundamental concepts and new approaches to work have emerged. L&D as a function that ‘provide’s knowledge and skills to the organisation is as dated as the dinosaur.

The coming of the Internet has forever changed the way knowledge is accessed! Knowledge is literally in the hands of employees. Peering at them through mobile devices and monitors. And an array of the best of teachers and learners are ever present on the web, to teach their craft. On you tube. On twitter. Numerous blogs and a spectrum of other sources.

The quintessential L&D professional : the ‘point-solution-provider’ who seeks to deliver programs, counts mandays and measures how satisfied learners were with the program so delivered, is dead wood! Or maybe worse than dead wood.

It is time ( long overdue infact) for L&D to relook at our roles. And do something about it. If ‘enabling the organisation to perform better / become more ready for the future’ (and their variants) are what presumably are reasons for L&D’s existence, isnt it basic expectation that we are more aware of the various ways in which that can be done. Especially in the modern technology enabled context. ( Delivering vacuous programs certainly isn’t one of them).

It is a no-brainer that the right answers are always a product of the correct questions! There are a different set of questions, in my opinion that we must be debating in conferences now.  Here are the top 5.

1. With knowledge freely available, can L&D enable the organisation to leverage knowledge, at the place of work, by the employee, his peers and his immediate manager? How can we facilitate this access and leverage of knowledge better?

2. Can employee’s experience from such leverage become new learning for the organisation at large? In essence how does learning get embedded firmly in the context of work? What role can L&D play in enabling line managers to learn, coach, teach on the job?

3. How do we move from ‘point-solution-provider’ to enabler of continuous non-intrusive learning and create a choice palette for employees to seamlessly learn ( with the accent resting on ‘choice’ for the employee)? In essence how do we redefine the way work gets done? How do we help recast jobs and job content with ample avenues for learning?

4. Conversations within an organisation are the soul of an organisation. Can L&D enable such conversations? These can become the bedrock for collaborative approaches to work and learning. The consequent relationships that conversations  foster are but a corollary benefit!

5. How do we transfer the onus of learning and development back on to every single employee and his manager? How do help the organisation to place a premium on continuous renewal and growth? How do we hold the mirror constantly for the organisation and for ourselves?

How do we make ourselves redundant, in doing what we are doing now?

We would need to evolve granular answers to these.  And perhaps unearth more such questions and seek answers. I make no claim to have it all sorted out!  But are we even thinking about these ? Could we atleast, move on ? And atleast ask new questions like these in the conferences we attend ?

Questions are the answer!

There are many skills that are imbibed during formative years and years of study.  The one skill that perhaps will stand in great stead is that of asking good questions!

 For it is in the asking of questions that answers emerge.  For many years I thought of questions and questioning to be a prerogative of teachers. Which changed one day, when upon asking a few questions in a chemistry class, my teacher asked me to think up of five more questions!

 I was reminded of that incident reading  ‘Teaching Students to Ask their own Questions’ in the Harvard Education Letter.

 The process of teaching undergoes a fundamental change when students are entrusted with the idea of seeking out questions that would enable them to search for answers.  Automatically, the responsibility for ‘learning’ shifts to the ‘learner’ and away from the ‘instructor’.

 The beauty of questions is the space it creates for ‘exploration’. And exploration is a function of wonder! Developing an acumen for asking the right question, is furthering the prowess of exploration and often leading to a choice set for action.

 The link quoted above introduces you to a step by step process called, the ‘Question Formulation Technique’ or QFT.  This technique is supposed to help students learn how to produce, improve upon and strategise on how to use the questions they come up with.

 Step 1: Teachers Design a Question Focus

Step 2: Students Produce Questions

Step 3: Students Improve Their Questions

Step 4: Students Prioritize Their Questions.

Step 5: Students and Teachers Decide on Next Steps.

Step 6: Students Reflect on What They Have Learned.

To see this as an easy set of steps to pursue, will be oversimplifying the approach.  For the fundamental nature of relying on ‘questions’ requires a shift in the way a learner  approaches a subject. It requires an bigger shift in the way a teacher or a trainer would approach the student as well.

The role of the trainer / teacher, as a facilitator who holds the space for questions to flourish and discussions to take place requires a certain ‘courage’.  A willingness to hold the urge to ‘give the answer’ or to prove expertise, and engage with perpetuating a ceaseless exploration!  Yet, being very present, encouraging and participatory!  And to stimulate wonder!

Its simple ! Asking questions help children stay in control.  When they are in control, their interest grows and obviously it has a big positive impact on their learning.  Of all the facilitators and trainers who I have worked with, the ones that I have relished working with are ones that  left me with more questions than answers at the end of the program !

So is the case with my managers and business leaders.

The case for leaders being teachers was made in this post.  An essential (and much under rated) skill in the repertoire of skills, leaders that I have held in high esteem have possessed is the art of asking thought provoking questions, that enable teams to figure out answers!

More often than not, in the quest for giving the right answers we miss the point that the trick is not in the ‘right’ answers.  But rather in realising that questions elicit the answers !

Questions are the answers !


Children and their abilities to question are legendary. Coming from a clean slate, an inherent curiosity to know more and just be present in the moment.

Amongst the kids of friends and family, many questions abound. And some stay with me. More in that moment as their parents struggled for answers. Here are a few recollections.

  • ‘Why do you have to stand straight ? Can you just crawl around ?’


  • ‘Who invented walking ?’

  • ‘Papa, why don’t you wear a blue cloth on your head like that man ? ( Pointing to Manmohan Singh)’

  • Upon seeing a Korean Air plane, which is blue in colour : ” That is the only plane that flies in the sky”.

  • Papa, do you really work when you go to office or sleep like you do on Sundays ?

  • Mamma, ( looking at slum children ) can i play with them ? Why not ?

  • Uncle, are you the one from office, that my dad complains to my mom about daily ?

  • ( After watching Animal planet ) Animals are wonderful. So much better than my school teacher. Isnt it ma ?

  • If the rose can be red in colour, and it so good, why cant everything be red in colour ?

  • If i will be big one day, there will be somebody small also ? I need to teach somebody like you are teaching me.

  • After watching Discovery Channel : “If all people are the same, why do we have to fight ?”

  • Watching a news telecast : ‘These people have no other work’

  • Upon being asked what his name was : ‘You are the 10th person asking my name today. Please ask that uncle in that green T-shirt’.

  • Mamma, if God invented the world, he invented ice-cream also ? Are you sure, God invented vegetables also ?

Children and their questions / statements have always promised a hope for the future. That things indeed will be different. And to date, that’s a promise that never fades. At least as long as us adults don’t interfere ! That is !

Here’s to a great year of education ! And the next time he or she, comes up with a question, no matter how silly, no matter how odd. Perhaps its important to note that many answers to his or her future stays pregnant in the questions themselves !

And of course, one last question asked by a certain R. The mother had no answer. Can somebody help her.

“Why do girls sit and do ‘su-su’ and boys have to stand and do ‘su-su’ ?” [ ‘Su-su’, is accepted child / adult speak for pee ]


This post concludes the three post series on the kids world of today