The danger of not knowing how to ask questions

May 09, 2023 08:08
Photo: RTHK

We are raising our youth to become hyper-efficient question-answering machines, but fundamentally constricted askers of questions.

For far too long we have equated academic excellence and accomplishment with the precise ability to ‘solve’ problems, to ‘crack’ puzzles, and to ‘address’ research theses - this is the case, even amongst the more open-minded and progressive of education systems.

From Montessori (early childhood focus) to the International Baccalaureate’s purported emphasis upon independent enquiry (for those in their teens), contemporary pedagogy is increasingly geared towards minimising the undue efforts and ‘waste’ that students have historically undergone in order to unlock the ‘right’ answer.

Fundamentally, academic systems across the world, whether it be in South Korea (with a precipitously evident mixture of rote learning and highly technically driven STEM learning), Mainland China (with an increasingly occupationally and job prospects-centered angle to teaching, paired with an escalation in ideological intensity and presence), or the UK (where education inequalities are purportedly being rectified through reinventions of the wheel and affirmative action, as opposed to structural remedies aimed at augmenting skills and aptitudes) have become very, very good at inviting students to answer questions.

Some of these questions are more closed and dogmatic. Others more open-ended and encouraging. Experimentation and investigation of phenomena is encouraged, but only insofar as it adheres to well-defined syllabi or well-trodden paths of moderate to low risks. Asking superficial and facile questions is also permitted, if not endorsed, as a means of signaling competence according to convolutedly crafted criteria for differentiating across a large cluster of equally ambitious and high-achieving pupils.

Here lies the problem. I submit that in order to prepare our youth for the challenges that lie ahead, it’s not good enough of us to equip them with the skills needed to answer questions. Indeed, there are plenty of tools that can now perform the same function, with greater precision, flair, and comprehensiveness than students - even university or post-graduate students.

It is imperative - not a bonus - that we train our students to ask good questions, and that is for primarily two reasons:

Firstly, automation is well on its way. GPT-4, ChatGPT, and Large Language Models (LLMs) at large have emerged to be highly sophisticated, capable, and robust tools of knowledge enquiry. Indeed, at the frontier of AI development lies quasi-intelligent interfaces that can generate, synthesise, evaluate, and even critique knowledge at volumes that are orders of magnitude vaster than what a human being could obtain throughout their average lifespan - at but a fraction of the time their human counterpart would take. AI possesses the wherewithal to transport even the most uninformed of laypersons to the frontier of knowledge - whilst disseminating and communicating the knowledge in a way that is far more likely to be concise and to-the-point, as compared with the average historian, legal theorist, or technologist working at the boundaries of knowledge.

None of this is to say that humans are wholly replaceable by AI. There remains much that humans, in virtue of our being communicative, intersubjectively governed, and imperfectly informed (and thus curious) beings, are uniquely capable of doing. Demonstrating sincere and authentic love that is valued and cherished universally as important, for one. Communicating subtler subtextual messages through complex expressions and gestures, for another. Delivering a public speech that transforms and transfixes the public, for yet another. Asking questions - especially good ones - is certainly a skill that few AI could, as of yet, replicate. Cursory attempts at inviting AI to posit questions, would often produce questions that are either so narrow and niche that they are anodyne, or so sweeping that they are fundamentally unhelpful.

Humans, on the other hand, possess the capacity to evaluate and judge, extrapolate and infer from their lived experiences -- and their inherently subjective involvement with such experiences - questions that can leave lasting impacts as they are investigated, then answered. Going forward, we must inspire our youth to learn to ask more daring, incisive, and contextually relevant questions that straddle fields and encompass subjects. Sure, such questions may be best answered through AI and the vast Internet of Things (IoT) that has arrived through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, yet only humans can possess the potential to ask questions that probe AI to its very limits (unless we are dealing, of course, with a wholly self-sustaining Artificial General Intelligence, but that’s a story for another day).

Secondly, as argued by Bhaskar in his wonderfully penned work on how the pace at which original big ideas are being ‘uncovered’ or developed has been progressively slowing over the past few decades, we have with us here a paradox. The modern world has come leaps and bounds since the Victorian era or late Qing dynasty, and yet it does strike many an observer that we are no longer privy to the same capaciousness and openness to prominent, monumental intellectual ‘inventions’ or ‘discoveries’ as our predecessors 200 years ago.

Bhaskar attributed the shifts here to a range of factors - from bureaucratisation to increasing risk-aversion, from the exhaustion of the ‘low-hanging’ fruits (cf. ‘Eroom’s Law’) to the fragmentation of global research cooperation and collective action problems. Yet in my view, a factor that remains highly plausible as an explanation - though perhaps overlooked - is that the contemporary era is disproportionately focused on stimulating the answering of questions. Journal articles are rewarded for their ability to solve puzzles and plug holes - however small or contained - in the existing literature. Columns and op-eds are scanned and adjudicated in accordance with their ability to offer solutions (though grand-standing by bigwigs is certainly also vogue, just look at the commentary on the war in Ukraine!). Solutions, hands-on advice (self-help tips included), and the reductionist desecration of the truth in favour of ‘simpler stories to tell’ indubitably reflect the most perilous consequences of this constant search for answers - and, correspondingly, the relative neglect for questions.

We aren’t running out of big ideas. Nor are we any dumber than our forefathers and predecessors from merely two centuries ago. Instead, the real root problem rests with our increasing reticence to confront - or be confronted by - what we don’t know. In seeking to know it all, and to prove/signal to the world that we know it all, we are inadvertently straitjacketing ourselves and opting for myopic silos of knowledge. Within these silos we may feel more comfortable in the short to medium run; yet it is also such silo-ing that leaves us all the poorer in the long run, intellectually, socioeconomically, and qua active citizens.

It’s high time that we took seriously the art of question-asking.

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Assistant Professor, HKU