Software and Computer Engineering

Questions, not answers, are the greatest tool for building knowledge

Back in School...

In a teacher-student setting, the teachers have all the answers and transmit this knowledge to students in expository classes.

Success is measured -- for both teachers and students -- by how precisely the students are able to produce back the answers previously handed down to them in a test setting.

Note: It is not my goal to say “this is all wrong”. I'm just assessing that the above is the case. Most likely, given the available resources, external pressures, the number of students per teacher, and so on, a system that resembles that is the only process which is possible for everyone involved.

In short, the rewarded behavior, from the student's viewpoint, is how efficiently they are able to reproduce back the answers when prompted.

In some regards, this leads to the ultimately intended knowledge-building. After all, recalling the subject matter is a necessary condition for understanding it.

In other regards, there are shortcomings: It is pointless for students to actively engage with the subject matter, criticizing it and/or digging down further in some direction that is particularly interesting to them.

Again, all this is a consequence of the fact that the measure of success is how precisely the students are able to produce back the answers.

Into the “real world”

The critical difference between the teacher-student setting, as previously described, and a professional setting is that, on the latter, not every answer is known.

Of course, there are general guidelines, “best practices” and widely adopted processes and methods -- and those should be studied and known, as a baseline -- but what I argue that no one is really sure these are the absolute best way to do things.

Much of one's professional time is spent on deciding how to best allocate resources: “How much time should I spend on this effort, rather than that other effort?”.

Without knowing the results, it's not possible to have a straightforward answer: and the results are very often not known ahead of time -- this is the very definition of risk.

What's the takeaway from all this?

When we are fresh out of the school setting, there is one very critical skill that we haven't developed: not knowing.

We learn very early that “I don't know” is not an acceptable answer. On the other hand, I argue, that should be our very first position about anything.

By starting at “I don't know” we can begin asking the question of “How can I know?” -- not in the rhetorical sense, but in the most genuine, curious, knowledge-seeking sense.

What textbooks and the school system do is to provide a baseline for all of society. Take those as society saying to you as “this is what we've figured out over the decades and what we're pretty certain about, now you go on your way”.

This is amazingly powerful; every generation can start building from what the previous one has already built. The “shoulder of giants” and all that.

But what I believe that has been lost in the process is: We -- as individuals -- have to challenge handed down knowledge. We have to actively engage and understand what it all means.

And, perhaps deeper than that, we have to be OK with the state of “not knowing now” so we can start seeking the questions. In the a “real-world” setting, we are the ones formulating both the questions and the answers for our tests.