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Post date: Jun 04, 2013 7:42:34 AM

The necessity of questions

By K Ranga Krishnan

31 May

It would appear that little children are more curious about things around them than are students in schools and universities or even working adults.

The kids are the ones who keep asking questions. And they will not hesitate to pose more if they are not satisfied with the answers. So bit by bit, these inquisitive children learn about the world — by asking questions.

As for students, their main concern is to pass examinations rather than expand their knowledge of the world. So they press their teachers on what they should know about the subject and how they should answer questions; they even ask for the questions in (and answers to) last year’s exam papers.

I’m afraid even adults these days are not curious enough to ask questions. We just do not want to think.

We should be careful how we respond to children’s queries. If we avoid answering, we end up dampening their curiosity and discouraging them from lifelong learning.

We teach children their ABCs and 123s, which are important. But we must do more — to sustain their curiosity.

Imagine a world where no questions are asked. What would we know? Without questions, there is no thinking, no search for answers.

People who develop new knowledge are driven by curiosity. They always start with questions; they challenge the dogma and seek answers. Without questions, knowledge in any field would remain static. In fact, every human endeavour into new areas always starts with curiosity-driven questions, for which answers are not available or are unsatisfactory.

In any field that is vibrant, every answer leads to more questions. What happens when there are no more interesting questions? The intellectual energy, interest and growth dry up.

Questions are the foundation that build reason. They stimulate thought. Questions help conceptualise the material. Properly defined, they can generate analysis, synthesis and promote creativity.

At Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, we give questions to students in groups to arrive at an answer that they can justify to their classmates. Our students are allowed to use search engines, books or any other resource material. But these days, Google, and Wikipedia try to provide instant answers — they imply less need for our students to think.

We see many different answers from our students to a question. Sometimes, these answers reflect the state of the field.

More importantly, they raise further questions and show the limits of what we know.

Our approach requires students to raise questions in their discussions — to clarify, engage and disagree if need be. The type and character of questions asked reflect the students’ depth of thinking.

When I taught psychiatry at Duke University in the United States, I used to like asking questions, more as a way to engage and help students think and understand. In retrospect, I wonder if it would have been better to ask them to generate questions that would stimulate more questions.

In the old lectures, we fed students with endless “facts” that had to be regurgitated during examinations. This helped individuals do well in factual examinations, but not so well in improving knowledge and understanding. It also did not lead to long-term retention and understanding.

Teaching students how to ask questions and encouraging them to do so is critical to working in the new knowledge economy and in grooming the next generation of thought leaders. We need to teach students how to ask questions that can lead to more questions.

There are many kinds of questions: Questions to clarify, questions that synthesise, questions that evaluate, questions that lead to creativity. There are also many ways to ask a question. Asking questions is how physicians, for instance, learn to understand their patients’ problems and how they proceed to treat them.

Exams are more useful when they are designed to assess application of knowledge rather than retention of facts. Maybe we should also have exams to assess students’ ability to ask the right questions.


K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009.