Our Questions Create The Future

magic eight ball

image via greeblie on Flickr

I read Brian Mathews’ new white paper Think Like a Startup on Friday, and it was an inspiring end to the week. If you haven’t read it yet, go do it (and I’d love to hear your thoughts and chat about it on Twitter). In the paper he also puts forward good questions — big questions. These are questions like:

  • “How can libraries support 21st century learners?”
  • “How can we help the individuals at our institutions become more successful?”

Questions have immense power. “A good question is something that leads people on a quest.” They have the ability to focus, but they also have the ability to distract. If you or your organization is not asking the right questions, you could be following a path that is taking you somewhere you didn’t want to go. But if you are asking a question like how can we support 21st century learners, all the answers, whether right or wrong, will still be focused on that mission.

We’ve all heard the old adage that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. That’s true. Questions mean we’re curious and want to understand. A lack of questions means that we are fine with not learning and stagnation. But there are certainly better or worse questions. There are questions that can move us forward a little or questions that can completely change our thinking. I’ve heard, and I know I’ve been guilty of asking questions like: “how can we increase our reference numbers,” or “what if we have too much success?” While these questions are important for planning and can be illuminating, we can’t forget to go back to the really big, important questions. We have to ask these smaller questions in concert with the big ones.

Hildy Gottlieb in her TEDx talk about Creating the Future asks questions that can bring focus to a library or other institution:

  • “What kind of world do we really want?”
  • “What is the path that will get us there?”

She talks about envisioning what success would look like and reverse engineering the future that we want. What kind of library community do we want? What will it look like? These are questions that change the way you look at the work you’re doing and perhaps lead to deep insights.

The type of questions we ask as organizations and as a profession determine our focus and direction. What questions should we be asking? What questions are you asking?


Let Us Inquire Together

students working together

Image by Lower Columbia College on Flickr

What if instead of coming into an information literacy session planning to teach students how to evaluate a website or explain searching the databases or catalog you came into class planning to explore an interesting information literacy question with your students? This would be a really interesting or important question that affects not just college research but our everyday lives. These would be questions interesting to us as librarians, but also likely interesting to anyone living in this information age. I thought through an example of a question and session below.

How do I know what information to trust?

In this session, you could ask students to think of a person that they trust and then write down 3 reasons why they trust them. You could then begin to discuss what makes something or someone trustworthy. They might say they trust a person because he or she is smart (you could bring in the idea of expertise or authority). They might say they trust someone because they have earned it and have given them good information in the past (you could bring in the idea of reliability).

You could then transition into having groups of students finding the most trustworthy information they can in 15 minutes about different questions. One question could be “you want to have an informed opinion about the Trayvon Martin case; what information source in your opinion is most trustworthy?” In this instance a book or database likely wouldn’t be the best option and you could bring up ideas about currency, bias and perhaps primary sources.

Another question could be “You want to understand the scientific theory of evolution; what information source in your opinion is the most trustworthy?” The Google results for “theory of evolution” are to put it mildly, all over the place. They may choose a book or science magazine article and you could discuss the nature of the publishing process and again discuss bias. They could also come up with the Wikipedia entry and you could talk about the references and citations at the bottom and a different type of editorial process. In addition you could discuss how knowledge (just like research) is constructed as opposed to simply finding the answer.

Instead of simply deciding to teach about primary sources or bias, by focusing on an interesting question you are able to bring those concepts and others in while putting them in their proper context and highlighting their importance. Primary sources (for example the police report or audio recordings of 911 calls in the Trayvon Martin case) are really helpful in piecing together what actually happened. News media may bias things in the way they present the events, who they choose to interview, or even the pictures they choose to show of the parties involved.

You give up control in a session like this. You may not hit all your points and students may take you on tangents or places you didn’t even think about. This can make the session a little scarier. But it could also be really fun, and it makes the learning that much more meaningful to the students.

Some other possible interesting questions I thought of were:

What would these lessons look like? What are other interesting questions that you would ask? Would you like doing a session like this?


The title for this post came from, among other places, the book Teaching With Your Mouth Shut and from Marilee Goldberg Adams.