It makes sense that I met someone at Boston’s Sustainability unConference from a place called The Right Question Institute. After all, I was wearing a cycling shirt with a question mark on my chest. Marcy Ostberg, a professional in the art of the question, invited me to visit The Right Question Institute. During lunch, she shared her ideas about ‘How will we live tomorrow?’
The Right Question Institute (RQI) is an educational non-profit that trains groups from all facets of society how to form pertinent questions to the challenges we face. Right answers are easy to find (especially in the Internet age) but formulating the right question is more elusive yet more important. RQI calls itself ‘a catalyst for microdemocracy’ because it believes that questioning is the essence of our democratic system.
I asked Luz Santana, RQI cofounder, about their training methodology. “We wanted to develop question and answer skills, so we built a 32 hour curriculum to help people integrate question skills into their work life. It didn’t work. The classes were too long. We pared it down to 21 hours, then 12, then six, then three. Now, we can get people to the essence of questioning in a one or 1-1/2 hour session.”
I wish I knew about RQI when I was developing my question, which took two years and several brainstorming sessions with deep thinking friends to evolve into five simple words.
The work of RQI, and other incessant questioners, is described in Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question. This fascinating book proved to me, among other things, that there’s nothing new on earth. An entire body of research and pedagogical insight exists behind a simple question like, ‘How will we live tomorrow?’
At 31, Marcy Ostberg is in her third career. After studying kinesiology at Gordon College she spent three years as a lacrosse coach and five years teaching biology before attending Tufts Urban Environmental Policy Program. She has the kind of zigzag resume typical among inveterate questioners.
“The question is how we want to live versus how we think we will live. Our current trajectory is pessimistic. We are killing creativity through our educational system. We have designed a system that stresses rote material. If we don’t have creative thinkers to fix the huge problems facing us, we’ll have more extreme problems and no one to address them.
The Right Question Institute challenges this approach. If we develop questioning skills, then I have a more optimistic view that we will have people ready to answer the challenges of tomorrow.”
Marcy describes what she calls “small progress”: more question-based science standards that stress experimental and experiential understanding rather than mere fact regurgitation; inquiry-based standards in C3 social studies (College / Career / Civic Life); the Common Core evolving in a more question-based way; and incorporating question and discussion techniques among the criteria in Danielson’s evaluation standards for teachers.
“We push all kids on a college path. We stress college above all else, and the trades suffer as a result. What if we gave vocational training higher value? How can we better differentiate students to gauge their success?”
Marcy believes our increased emphasis on testing comes from two factors. “The global society promotes testing. It’s a way to measure us versus others. America doesn’t like to feel second. But testing is also pushed because it’s easier, even though it measures only a small part of what education should do.”
Marcy discovered RQI’s inquiry-based methods while teaching at the Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), a public charter high school for overage high school students. Marcy found question-based teaching well suited to BDEA’s competency-based approach where each student progressed through material at his own pace.
“It’s true that we had a higher student / teacher ratio and support than other schools, but that was more based on the level of students (ages 16 to 22, all with gaps in their educational careers) than the competency model of education. A high school in a New Hampshire town like the one I grew up in, could be run on a competency-based model with the same staff they have now.”
“I came to The Right Question Institute through education, where questioning leads to deeper engagement. But I see the value of questioning in every aspect of our society. Work in administration and policy leads to buy-in, work in healthcare and business leads to innovation. A positive future depends on asking the right questions.”