What shapes our lives are the questions we ask, refuse to ask, or never think to ask. Sam Keen.

Two books, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind and Socrates Café, at first glance look to have nothing in common. The first was about pirate William Dampier and the second about a professor reviving Socrates methods in an informal cafe setting. A pirate is defined as “A ruthless speculator or adventurer”. What could a pirate and a great philosopher possibly have in common? I would suggest the German word Nichtwisen.

I came across this word in an article by Harrison Owen named Opening Space for Nichtwisen”. An excerpt from his article:
“In ordinary speech we normally juxtapose knowledge with ignorance with never a thought for The Question. Perhaps this explains why, at least in American circles, we are infatuated with knowledge, but remain almost oblivious to the power and impact of the precursor of knowledge – The Question.
Ignorance is something to be eliminated. The Question, however, is to be cherished and cultivated, for knowledge without the question is shorn from its roots. In worst case scenarios, such knowledge becomes trivia; incidental facts and figures with no way to understand the place and purpose.
Given the current interest in the generation of knowledge, now elevated to the status of field or discipline, as in Knowledge Management, it is very much as if we were playing a most important game with one hand tied behind our back. Or some might say we play with half a deck of cards.”
For most people, the word question and Socrates have a strong correlation.

From Socrates Cafe, Socrates method is described as: “Socrates did not teach in the regular way. He held no class and gave no lectures and wrote no books. He simply asked questions. When he got his answer he asked more. Socrates asked his questions in order to make people think.”
The more questions you have, the firmer the footing you are on. The more you know yourself. The more you can map out and set a meaningful path for your future.”

If you asked people to think of words to describe a pirate, most likely the word question would be low on the list – if at all. And yet, the more I read about pirates the more I learn the typical stereotype is not completely correct.
Pirates, within their group, created and practiced one of the first forms of democracy. On board ship a set of articles (rules of conduct) governed the ship. The rules included: creation of a council to delegate duties of the crew, workman’s compensation program for injuries sustained during the voyage, voting by the crew determined the level of punishment for offensives, voting on major decisions regarding attacks and course, and strict rules on association with women.
Most likely they created this democracy because many faced injustice from society (over one third of the pirates were former slaves and many others experienced the rule of cruel monarchy).

How could we set up a better system they probably asked? Pirates were also a very literate group with over 70% level of literacy (a literate person at this time was also one who could sign their name). Diana & Michael Preston in A Pirate of Exquisite Mind surmised the relatively high level among sailors is reflected partly due to the intelligence of those sufficiently curious to want to see the world and partly the requirement to read charts.

William Dampier is considered to have been an explorer, naturalist, author and buccaneer. He became a model for writing travel books. Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe used Dampier’s writings as a source for their books. His detailed account of his journeys and astute observations of the environment, geography, maps, weather and animal life became the bible for many current and future explores. Dampier can claim more than 1000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Inscription on his memorial: “Thrice he circumnavigated the globe.”

An exact observer of all things in Earth, Sea and Air he recorded the knowledge won by years of dangers and hardships in books on his voyages and his book Discourse of Winds, Tides and Currents.  Dampier’s last trip was made while he was in his 50s. The journeys were filed with hardship and many dangers.

What drove him? In part it was the chance of a fortune from a well laden ship. His initial objective was to pursue the bounty of other ships but his curiosity, atypical pirate interests and powers of observation provided him with real satisfaction. He asked himself many questions and considered what deductions could be made. He was then able to understand the weather, nature, navigation, etc. better than anyone at this time.

The book Socrates Cafe shares the author’s experience in coffee houses, book stores and other small gatherings to share ideas and experience. In the book about Dampier, the author describes the atmosphere of a coffee house in the seventeenth-century. It was an era of intellectual and political ferment where ideas could transcend status. London’s lively coffeehouses, where Dampier probably pursued his contacts, exemplified this atmosphere. England’s first coffee house had been opened by a Jewish immigrant in Oxford in 1650. The first in London followed two years later and proved so popular that by 1700 there were more than 2,000 in the city. They were convivial, democratic establishments where men of al pursuits and backgrounds rubbed shoulders. Entrance cost a mere penny, and a man could spend much of the day drinking a dish of coffee costing about one and a half pence and debating the state of the world with other drinkers.

I tutor mathematics to high school and college students. Many times my students will look at a problem and remark they have no idea how to solve it, nor where to start. I start by asking them a few questions; no answers from me just questions. Most of the time, after a few directed questions, they have found an approach to solve the problem.

James Krenov is a wonderful cabinetmaker and teacher. Elis Walentine made this comment about his teaching style (a modern version of the Socratic Method): “In his quick, self-effacing and sometimes impish way, he delivers his critiques in the form of questions and oblique suggestions, which convey his point without becoming too didactic.”

My experience in working with students has taught me one of the most important skills a student needs to learn is what questions to ask.

George Polya’s problem solving process in his famous book, How to Solve It, can be summarized as these steps and typical a questions:

  • Understand (what do I know, what do I need to solve, how can it be restated?, related to another problem?)
  • Plan (organize, write/draw, what I know?, create an approach/path).
  • Carry Out the Plan (give it a try, adjust, what can I learn from this plan?).
  • Look Back (will this be useful later, how else can it be applied?).

In Stephan Shapiro‘s book 24/7 Innovation (A Blueprint for Surviving & Thriving in an Age of Change) he made the following observation:
“When a good detective sets out to analyze a crime scene or investigate a case, he never starts by asking what evidence I can gather. He’s much smarter than that. His first question is: What are the questions I need to answer in order to allow me to solve cases?”

When I was teaching at a boarding school one class ask if they could do their homework in the classroom – they felt their work was more productive in that room. They had not yet realized the key to their learning was the series of questions which lead them to understanding.

“No one questions, no one wonders, no one examines like children. It is not simply that children love questions but they live for question” – Socrates Cafe.

Too bad many lose this skill and have to work so hard to re-develop.
From Conceptual Block Busting by James Adams: The first reason we lose our questioning attitude is we are discouraged from inquiry.
After a child reaches a certain age parents and others are often not as patient with questions (especially if they are busy or do not know the answer). The second reason the child’s inquisitive nature is socialized out of us (or at least diminished. Smart is often associated with the amount of knowledge one demonstrates.
A question can be perceived as an admission we do not know or understand something [Nitchtwisen] while the opposite is true. Good probing questions which uncover patterns and links add to our knowledge and will receive a comment such as “that’s a great question”.

Learning what and how to ask questions is a key to fully understanding and learning the material. We need to form links to what we already know. Retention rate and comprehension is increased dramatically if this is done. Until one connects the experience and finds the patterns among them, or places the experiences into context additional to those in which the experience occurred, learning is not likely to take place (from the book Learning to Use What You Already Know).

I talked with a high school student taking a statistics and was amazed at the pace and quantity of material the teacher required. The teacher moved from current topic to the next topic with great speed and made great use of a powerful calculator to solve most of the problems. At the end of the course the student received a grade of B+. While happy about his grade he felt he had very little understanding of the material. He learned to follow a process, without any knowledge of why or how each part was related to the others. He did not have the knowledge to apply the material outside the context of the classroom.

Teaching someone how to learn opens up a world of adventure and knowledge and provides one the tools for one to continue for themselves. From the web site “From Now On” (www.fno.org):

“Questions allow us to control our lives and allow us to make sense of a confusing world, they are tools that lead to insight and understanding. If all you have is the technology, you are not an information producer, you are just a consumer.”

Asking questions is a very good way to find out about something. – Kermit the Frog.