“Your answer in the form of a question, please …”
Alex Trebek has played the smartest man in the world for 35 years on the popular game show Jeopardy.
Even though we all know the answers are on the cards, we somehow project on him a kind of supreme knowledge. Don’t we all tend to mislead ourselves similarly and think we could most definitely win at Jeopardy? We get the one answer out of ten but somehow remember that one and not the nine we missed. So maybe we viewers, and Alex, aren’t as smart as we think. But the thing that Alex gets right every time is he demands the answer in the form of a question.
This reminds me of a simple decision-making strategy I learned a long time ago. When I first learned it, I didn’t realize that I was annoying the heck out of my parents. When my own kids discovered the strategy, it was clear just how effective and annoying it could be. Later, some professor coined the approach as “5-whys,” probably wrote a book, and made a little walking-around money.
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? It is how kids learn and a strategy that we should consider using in these complicated times when there is no best solution. When there are no 100% right solutions, it is time to ask a lot of questions.
In this age of TV pundits telling us what we should think, news delivery systems designed to reinforce our thinking, and shouting down echo chambers, school leaders are forced to make decisions that do two things: 1. Assure the health and safety of children and staff; 2. Assure that children learn the knowledge and skills they need to be successful adults. This is not a time for echo chambers, Facebook research, or YouTube solutions.
It is a time to be inquisitive and not dogmatic, to seek first to understand, then to be understood. It is time to search for answers by breaking down barriers, not drawing lines in the sand.
As you embark on your mission of inquiry, keep some of questions we learn in high school debate class in mind:
What is your evidence? What conclusion did the author or researcher reach? Who is reporting the information? What is the author or researcher’s credentials? And of course, why did the author or researcher reach that conclusion. Did you learn that “fact” from the Journal of the American Medical Association or your high school buddy’s Facebook post? (Unless of course your high school buddy is an eminent virologist who publishes in the JAMA.)
My challenge to you is to return to your two-year-old self, or if it makes you feel better, we can call it the Alex Trebek approach –– give your answer in the form of a question: why.
When you hear a solution, or a policy, or an idea that someone is pitching for returning to school, wearing a mask, social-distancing, playing sports, or whatever hot-button issue you are working on right now, ask why? Then ask why again. And again. And again. And again.
Guaranteed to annoy your friends, neighbors, and colleagues and guaranteed to help you question your own beliefs. Don’t forget the what, how, and the who, but start with the why.
One last thing — watch how gracious Alex is when someone gets it wrong.