Research Cycle

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Vol 15|No 5|June|2019

Unanswerable Questions

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)

"If I am diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, which of my friends will prove trustworthy and steadfast and which will disappoint me and desert me?"

While we can try to predict how our friends will act when faced by such a situation, human behavior is difficult to predict under such circumstances, and we may be pleasantly surprised by those we doubted while shocked by the failure of some we trusted wholeheartedly.
Prediction ranks high on the list of unanswerable questions, for we care so much about these outcomes and wish to make wise choices based on our best guess as to what might happen.

"What is the best treatment for my cancer?"

Even after conducting exhaustive research and consulting many experts, seeking many opinions, we cannot be sure whether our choice is the best one.

In my own case, when diagnosed at age 50 with prostate cancer, I was pressured by some doctors to go for surgery which was then considered "the gold standard." I chose brachytherapy (radioactive seeds) instead of surgery, a treatment that seemed a bit experimental at the time but promised fewer damaging side effects. It was a gamble, but one that paid off.

Twenty-three years later, I am pleased with the outcome and glad to be alive, but at the time I was far from certain that I was doing the right thing. One of my best friends, a surgeon, told me I was crazy.

"Who will do the best job of running the nation? the state? the city?"

Trump & Clinton

Faced with candidates running for local or national office, we might do serious homework, study their positions on the issues, listen to debates and pick the woman or man who seems most promising. Perhaps we will simply vote by party and hope for the best. Regardless of our strategy, candidates often surprise and disappoint us once elected. It may be part of the reason much of the electorate feels apathetic, alienated and pessimistic.

What can schools do?

Since unanswerable questions like those mentioned above will arise in everyone's life, they deserve a place in the school curriculum, whether they be addressed in literature classes or social studies. Even science can provide examples of theories and laws that had to be revised as civilization and culture advanced.

Students can learn to wrestle with ambiguity and uncertainty, approximating answers, posing suppositions and testing hypotheses.

What do you suppose?

We can ask students to make (and defend) suppositions about the future as well as the past. They may not be able to prove their answers, but they should be able to justify and support them with evidence and logical thought.

  • What do suppose will happen in the next election?
  • What do you suppose is the future of driverless cars?
  • What do you suppose Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath might have written if they had not committed suicide?
  • What do you suppose drove Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath to suicide?
  • What do you suppose will happen to Brexit?
  • What do you suppose will happen to the European Union?
  • What do you suppose Van Gogh would have painted if he had lived longer?
  • What do you suppose Lincoln or JFK or Bobby Kennedy or MLK would have accomplished if they lived longer?
  • What do you suppose Jesus or Muhammed would think if they came back today?
  • What do you suppose will happen if Global Warming is real?
  • What do you suppose will happen to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan in the next 5 years?
  • What do you suppose will be the biggest challenges facing the USA in the next ten years?
  • What do you suppose?

Which or who would be better?

Choices often elude clear answers. We show students how to set criteria, gather data and make the wisest decision possible, knowing that certainty is beyond our grasp.

This kind of thinking is illustrated in the online activity, "Where in Asia shall I spend my two years?" and in "Inspired Investigations."

  • Which would be better as a city to live in?
  • Who would be better as a ship captain?
  • Which woman would be better as a wife?
  • Which man would be better as a husband?
  • Who would be better as a boss?
  • Which would be better as a job?
  • Which would be better as a college?
  • Which would be better as a college major?
  • Who would be better as a senator?
  • Which would be better as a diet?
  • Which would be better as an exercise plan?
While these questions are unanswerable in the ultimate sense, they require a serious effort to approach a satisfying answer. Students learn to accept something less than certainty.

Embracing complexity

We live in times awash in simplicity and simple-minded thinking.<

But life is not simple. Nor are the challenges and issues facing us all, yet our culture seems to thirst for simple answers to complex problems.

Schools must engage students in research and learning requiring them to construct answers and make up their own minds. They must teach the young to embrace complexity while finding their way toward understanding.

A thirst for simple answers to complex problems?

Sadly, we see a drift toward mentalsoftness and a preference for entertainment over hard news.

Pandering to these wishes is a host of politicians, pundits, talk show hosts, commentators and modern day self-appointed soothsayers quick to offer up nonsense - simple minded solutions to complicated problems.
  • Problems with illegal immigrants? Build a wall.
  • Problems with schools? Test students much more frequently.
  • Problems balancing the budget? Borrow, print money and give tax cuts.
Sadly, decades of school research rituals reinforce a cut and paste mentality that leaves citizens poorly equipped to think for themselves or manage complexity. Topical research requires little more than scooping and smushing.

Schools must end these rituals and engage students in research that requires that they construct answers and make up their own minds. They must teach the young to embrace complexity.

The diagram below shows an array of thinking tasks that deserve attention from teachers and schools, without which school may end up being little more than "one more brick in the wall."