Monthly Archives: March 2016

Questioning and Curiosity

“Today, we can’t afford to become adults”

Thoughts on change, questioning, and childlike wonder from MIT’s Joichi Ito

Joichi_ItoIn recent weeks, I’ve been sharing some of the fuller versions of interviews conducted while I was researching and writing A More Beautiful Question. Here are some quotes from my talk with Joichi Ito (@Joi), one of the world’s most respected technologists and the current director of that hothouse of innovation known as the MIT Media Lab.

Ito on why questioning is becoming more important than ever

“There are two important differences in the world now. First, it’s a time of exponential change, so things are different every day. The old model of learning—that you do a lot of it when you’re young and then become an adult who doesn’t learn as much—that just doesn’t work as a productive way of living now. You have to learn new things all the time. And you learn by being curious and by questioning

“The other important difference: in addition to increasing change, you’ve got increasing speed and complexity. In a world that’s complex and fast, things aren’t as predictable as they were before. You must be much more resilient—to change, to failure, to the unexpected. Now you must maintain some of that childlike wonder and that ability to keep questioning and learning through doing.”

On questioning and learning

“If the learner is doing the questioning, it’s very different from when an examiner (or teacher) is doing the questioning. When you have the examiner doing the questioning, you’re in what I would call education mode. I think education is something other people do to you, whereas learning is what you do to yourself. You don’t learn unless you question—but we often don’t teach our kids to question; we teach them to answer our questions, forcing them to learn facts and skills. But since we may not know what facts or skills that kid’s going to need in the future, what you really want is to empower them to be able to find their own answers when they need them.

“Through questioning, we can also find more than answers—knowing how to ask the right questions can help you to pull support from a network of people or communities as you need it. You pull from the network by querying it, but you need to understand how to frame the questions. So it may be a matter of, how do you formulate the query to Google, or to an online community, to get the support or resources or answers you need. And if you have that skill, you may not need to know anything, other than people; it’s more about understanding the context of the network and how to traverse it.”

Diversity and questioning

“If a group is asking a question or challenging itself to come up with an answer for something, there’s a great body of work that shows diversity is extremely important. Everybody has different frameworks or models to ask the question; and it turns out that having a large number of very smart people that are similar is not nearly as useful as having maybe less smart people but with diversity of background.

“Then the issue becomes, how do you have a constructive conversation when everyone’s frameworks and backgrounds are different? At the Media Lab, we do what I call practice over theory. So, if an artist and a mechanical engineer are working together, it might be difficult for them to write a rigorous academic paper together, but they can build something together… and it either works or doesn’t. Often, academics create theories and test them and if it doesn’t work they start questioning the reality, the data. We’re the opposite; we build a robot and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And if it works but we don’t understand it, we can study it. Being able to “build the robot” is a really essential in this kind of environment where you’re searching and trying to discover things.

“At the Media Lab, we try to discover answers to questions we don’t know to ask yet. And that’s actually a harder kind of questioning because what you’re doing is asking, What is the question? That’s a harder thing but it’s where you get the really disruptive changes and discoveries. Some people would say we’re a pile of answers looking for questions.”


Why companies need to experiment more

“At the Lab, usually the costs of trying to figure out whether or not we should try something is more than just going ahead and letting people try it. For most things, the costs of experimenting, of building and trying things, have gone down. If you look at the people who started Facebook and Google, none of these guys asked permission, they just tried things out—because it didn’t cost them much to do it. And in companies today, I think people really need to think about that. Because in many companies, it’s still very difficult to do things without permission—and the permission-getting process can be slow. It’s important to lower the friction on innovation by allowing people to explore.”

On “neoteny”

“I was introduced to the term by Timothy Leary when he and I were writing a book together, and I kind of fell in love with it. Neoteny is about the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood; curiosity, playfulness, imagination, joy, wonder. This brings us back to the point that today, we can’t afford to become adults—meaning, we can’t afford to fall into that trap of being in repetition mode. Those childlike attributes, somehow you need to keep them. There are some people in our society who are allowed to remain creative, but for the most part, creativity isn’t considered an adult thing—you’re not supposed to fingerpaint. Neoteny is a word that gives you permission to keep that childlike creativity as an adult. To encourage neoteny, I think what’s needed is a culture that encourages playfulness and experimentation. That’s the culture we have here at the Media Lab.” (More on this site about neoteny.)

 On getting better at questioning

“To question, I think you have to have courage and confidence. A lot of times, if you’re sitting there and you think about something in the bathtub, you might say, “Oh, I’m sure somebody’s already thought of it”—and then you stop thinking about it. But the world is changing so fast and so much, every day, that things that weren’t true in the past are true now—so you should assume that what you’re thinking may actually be an original idea and pursue it. Have the energy and the courage and creativity to think through these ideas and try them out. And even if you fail you’ll have learned a lot more than if you just gave up.”

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Alcohol fuel for the New Mexico Spaceport

Your opinions (printed March 18, Las Cruces Sun-News)

                                     NEW SPACEPORT BAR LIKE OLD BOOZE SHIPS

A burst of creativity from the crew piloting New Mexico’s ill-starred spaceport resulted in a need to obtain a liquor license, authorization for which was signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez. (Senate Bill 147) This “need” has a basis in history. In the 1920s, during Prohibition, grand ocean liners such as the Ile-de-France, Windsor Castle and Bremen kept their on-board bars open while docked at New York piers, as the liners stocked and fueled for the return voyage across the Atlantic to Europe.

Through a quirk in the law, well-heeled visitors to shipboard bars were not technically on the soil of the United States, and thus were free to imbibe in unlimited quantities the premium booze (far superior to the mob-produced bootleg gin available on land) before staggering down the gangway to a waiting limo or cab.

So impaired these bar patrons were, that many could have been convinced they had traveled across the ocean and returned during their boozy episode.

In the same way, fogged-up patrons of the spaceport’s bar could be led to believe, with a little creative stage-craft, that they had launched into space and returned as their glasses were speedily refilled one after another. All such patrons, when suitably pickled, (no doubt enhancing the bottom line of the spaceport in the process) would be loaded into a stretch limo for the trek home to make sure none got near the wheel of a car until thoroughly sobered up.

The genius of this plan is that no longer do we have to bother with the empty promises of Sir Richard or his fellow space-venture hype artists or the technical issues of an actual orbital passenger rocket ship to provide a revenue stream for the spaceport.

— Dan Townsend, Las Cruces

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Success in school explained

Starting at the school door is not soon enough

Recently I read an open letter from Michael Hays to Senator Lee Cotter concerning how to fix the 79% deficit in student reading performance in the fourth grade. As I see it, Hays believes the fix for NM is to upgrade colleges of education as opposed to Cotter’s support of widespread third grade retentions. Both are ideas for serious discussion but they don’t address the single factor that has been found to be the most important for student success.

Let’s step back and put the whole situation in perspective. Five years of life experiences have gone by before a child gets to school. Brain development in the first few years are the foundation for all learning that follows. What happens at home during this time has more influence on future success than anything that comes later.

Think of something you learned to do well. Maybe you are a great cook, play on a baseball team, or consider music an important pleasure in your life?

What is your very first memory of that experience? Quite likely, you can remember back to when you were three years old.

Now think of your best subjects in school. Is there a connection between your earliest memories and your school experiences? If you never touched a ball, how did you do in P.E? If your family didn’t dance or sing, how was your aptitude for music class?

For the first five years of life, every child’s first teachers are their caregivers. During the time when the brain is growing fastest and making crucial neural connections, a child is attaching emotionally, emulating, and trying to please the primary caregiver in the family.

Yes, educational excellence is of paramount importance and colleges of education are charged with the responsibility to train and produce the very best Reading teachers. Of course, public schools need to be accountable to standards, and milestones must be met to insure that learning is provided in a developmentally appropriate sequence for most of the children. I won’t argue with any of this. But, when looking for solutions, starting at the school door is not soon enough.

What happens at home between birth and the first day of kindergarten has much more to do with academic achievement than the number of years spent in third grade.

If a child grows up in a home where family games are played around the kitchen table and in the park, where throwing a ball, watching and talking sports is a favorite pastime, if music permeates the air, that child will enter school ready to excel at recess, PE, Music and even Math. Add books and shared family reading time to that mix and now our theoretical little kid is on a level playing field for Reading which opens the rest of the curriculum as well.

Lots of talking, naming, explaining, telling stories, and reading books together for pleasure, along with opportunities to ask and answer questions are fundamental learning skills. Starting school with these experiences make it much more likely that the curriculum in each grade will be developmentally appropriate and the transition from one grade to the next will be seamless.

Parents need to know that Kindergarten is changing to keep up with a fast paced world:

Children are expected to come to school able to recognize their own names as well as the names and sounds of letters and be able to print many of them in both upper and lowercase, count to 20 and see the one to one correspondence of numbers to objects, retell a story they have heard, and draw a picture to tell about an experience. They need to be able to concentrate on a task for five minutes, participate politely in group activity, and be flexible enough to adjust to new people and situations.

If 79% of our community’s children are not reading at grade level, there are lots of things that need to be done, including teacher training and school reform, but first parents need to be informed of what society’s expectations are and how easily they can be addressed at home in the earliest years. Finding out after school starts is entirely too late.


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