Research Cycle

 The Question Mark

 Vol 1|No 1|May|2004
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Serial Questioners and Umble Pie

by Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2004, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

Most important questions require the skillful pursuit of a series of subsidiary questions, yet we are often trained in school to consider Q/A pairs.

Question ----> Answer

Question ----> Answer

Question ----> Answer

Question ----> Answer

Life is rarely so simple or so cooperative.

When we explore what Michael Leunig calls "the difficult truth," we must learn to live with entire families of questions - whole generations of them spawned by a central or essential question.

How do we pick a leader?

One question leads to another . . . and another . . . and another . . . another.

The search for understanding and insight is exhausting, especially since we cannot find or uncover answers to the main questions. We must gather answers to the smaller (subsidiary) questions and then construct answers to the more important questions by synthesizing what we have gathered.

We learn to combine a dozen stories of treachery, deception and deceit to build a case for a captain having a flaw.

  • Was he fair to the people he encountered on his journeys?
  • What do you mean by "fair?"
  • What did "fair" mean then?
  • Are there stories of encounters that might help us decide?
  • Can we trust the versions that have survived this much time?

The Traits of a Serial Questioner

Click on the image map above to learn about each trait or select from the list below.

Most of us grew up with the simple Q/A approach, as teachers tended to dominate classroom exchanges with brief Q/A exercises with wait time of less than 3 seconds.

Classroom discourse was often about recall rather than exploration, and school research, all too often, was about gathering rather than figuring stuff out, building answers or fashioning solutions.

Serial questioning is something quite different.

A serial questioner possesses a number of remarkable characteristics, traits and propensities that may be nurtured by parents, teachers, schools and mentors of various kinds - the subject of a forthcoming article in September's issue of The Question Mark.


Arrogance blocks understanding.

If you think you know all the answers, chances are good that the most important ones will elude you. The serial questioner is ready and willing to acknowledge a lack of certainty and an appetite to learn more. Question begets question much like a virulent strain of virus.

Ironically, those who feast on umble pie are more likely to get to the heart of the matter. The origin of umble pie:

The pie referred to in 'eating humble pie' was really umble pie, made from the umbles - heart, liver and gizzard - of a deer. It was made to be eaten by servants and huntsmen, while the lord of the manor and his guests dined on venison.
Source: Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (second edition, Harper Collins, Publishers)

Relentless curiosity

Curiosity, despite the old saying to the contrary, did not kill the cat.

Where did that saying come from, anyway? Why do we share such a disturbing message with children? Do we really want them to grow up compliant, complacent and disengaged?

Parents and schools must encourage curiosity, awaken it when sleeping and reward it when emergent. Curiosity fuels inquiry, invention and discovery. Without curiosity we have detachment, passivity and boredom.

The serial questioner is always wondering why and how and whether.

Indefatigable persistence

The pursuit of understanding rarely pays off handsomely, rapidly and easily. These inquiries are not entertainments like pulling the arm of a slot machine or dropping coins into arcade games. Wrestling truth from the jungle of information available with all the twists and turns, biases and distortions typical of many sources, can be very frustrating, often tedious and usually prolonged. This is not about Play Stations™ and TinkerToys™.

Because insight is elusive and the search may be difficult, persistence - the ability to stay the course - is paramount. It is a matter of spirit - and character. Unlike Trivial Pursuit and various Treasure Hunt games, inquiry into difficult questions is like slogging through mud or briar patches. The student must be steadfast, tough, unflinching and determined to keep on keeping on. Roget's equates "indefatigable" with "Having or showing a capacity for protracted effort, regardless of difficulty or frustration: inexhaustible, tireless, unfailing, unflagging, untiring, unwearied."

Dogged determination

The serial questioner burns the late night candle down to the nub. As all the other lights turn off and the seeking stops, the serial questioner cannot sleep and cannot rest. The unanswered question is a powerful mistress, capable of inspiring an almost obsessive commitment. The researching student is stubbornly persevering and tenacious.


As much as possible, the serial questioner sheds pre-conceptions and bias prior to research, taking off various filters and lenses that might block discoveries.

(The next portion on open minds is adapted from Administrators at Risk: Tools and Technologies for Securing Your Future, McKenzie, National Educational Service, Bloomington, IN, 1993.)

What is an open mind? A mind that welcomes new ideas. A mind that invites new ideas in for a visit. A mind that introduces new ideas to the company that has already arrived. A mind that is most comfortable in mixed company. A mind that prizes silence and reflection. A mind that recognizes that later is often better than sooner. An open mind is somewhat like silly putty. Do you remember that wonderful ball of clay-like substance that you could bounce, roll and apply to comics as a child?

An open mind is playful and willing to be silly because the best ideas often hide deep within our minds away from our watchful, judgmental selves. Although our personalities contain the conflicting voices of both a clown and a critic, the critic usually prevails in our culture. The critic's voice keeps warning us not to appear foolish in front of our peers, not to offer up any outrageous ideas, and yet that is precisely how we end up with the most inventive and imaginative solutions to problems. We need to learn how to lock up the critic at times so the clown can play without restraint. We must prevent our internal critic from blocking our own thinking or attacking the ideas of others.

An open mind can bounce around in what might often seem like a haphazard fashion. When building something new, we must be willing to entertain unusual combinations and connections. The human mind, at its best, is especially powerful in jumping intuitively to discover unusual relationships and possibilities. An open mind quickly picks up the good ideas of other people, much like silly putty copying the image from a page of colored comics. The open mind is always hungry, looking for some new thoughts to add to its collection. The open mind knows that its own thinking is almost always incomplete. An open mind takes pride in learning from others. It would rather listen than speak. It loves to ask questions like, "How did you come up with that idea? Can you tell me more about your thinking? How did you know that? What are your premises? What evidence did you find?"

The open mind has "in-sight" - evaluating the quality of its own thinking to see gaps that might be filled. The open mind trains the clown and the critic to cooperate so that judgment and critique alternate with playful idea generation. Ideas have at least three major aspects that can usually be modified and improved:

1. Ideas are based upon premises of one kind or another. Many people come to their ideas (judgments or conclusions) without ever explicitly examining the premises that lie underneath those conclusions. Premises are basic beliefs that act for an idea as the foundation of a building or the roots of a tree. Collections of premises are often called assumptions or mind-sets. Sometimes our thinking comes to us already packaged without our even knowing which premises and assumptions lie below the surface, but an open mind knows that all such premises must be re-examined with some frequency to see if they are serving us well and truly match our basic belief systems.

2. Ideas are based upon evidence. Many of our ideas emerge from experience. We collect data, look for patterns and seek laws to help us predict the future. Unfortunately, we all too often collect evidence selectively. Once people begin to hold an idea, research has shown that they begin to screen out data which might create dissonance, evidence which might "call into question" the value of the idea. An open mind looks at the quality of its evidence with the same dispassionate attitude it applies to its premises and assumptions. Mindful of the three little pigs who built houses of straw, twigs and brick, the open mind seeks bricks and mortar that can withstand the huffing and puffing of the most aggressive wolf.

The open mind asks, "What evidence do I need to gather? Do I know enough? Has anything changed since I last gathered evidence? Is there new data? Is my data complete?"

3. Ideas may also be based upon logic. Our conclusions and ideas should flow from logical connections between our premises and our evidence. The open mind keeps asking of its ideas, "Is this logical? Does this make sense? Does this follow from the evidence I gathered? Have I identified all the key factors?

Tolerance of ambiguity

Ironically, while we seek clarity and understanding, complex questions usually defy our wishes and the search for meaning may feel like sailing through thick fog banks with only occasional glimpses of light, of islands, and of shoreline.

Raised on a diet of canned research projects and science experiments, many students will initially expect smooth sailing in broad daylight, and they may soon tire of the fog, complaining that the research is "dumb" or "stupid."

Many cultures now promote simplistic, "black and white" thinking - suggesting that difficult issues can be solved by applying slogans and various sugar-coated pills. The struggle for political power has collapsed into a contest of sound bites and mind candy as candidates propose solutions to quandaries and dilemmas that fit neatly into 30 second TV ads. Because sacrifice and patience are thought to be in short supply, citizens are spoon fed platitudes and bromides.

The best solutions to complicated situations often require an appreciation of nuance and subtlety. Learning to recognize the gray of life - the ambiguity - and to adjust plans accordingly is part of living in the real world as opposed to the false world of ideologues and demagogues who sell simple solutions and false hope. Certainty is often a warning sign of ignorance masquerading as something finer.

Thirst for the missing

What we do not know is often just what we need to know. What we do not understand is usually at the heart of the matter. Truth often lurks in the shadows - the negative space and the darkness of life. When we restrict our search to the well lit spaces, we risk blinding by the light.

The serial questioner spends lots of time wondering what she or he may have overlooked. The apparently irrelevant question often proves decisive and crucial. There are many reverse twists in the road, many apparent contradictions and elliptical miscues capable of throwing even the best detective off track.

Positive skepticism

The healthy skeptic is inclined to find out what is substantial and what is credible. Doubt works like a surgeon's scalpel, carving away at the surface and scraping away facades and veneers until the researcher finds something solid and plausible. Positive skepticism intends to resolve doubt, satisfy suspicion and put aside reservations. The researcher moves toward belief and conviction.

Sharpened humor

The ability to perceive, enjoy, or express what is amusing, comical, incongruous, or absurd.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition.  2000.

Someone unable to notice the humor in things is unlikely to look for or find the truth.

"There is something funny going on here."

1a. Causing laughter or amusement. b. Intended or designed to amuse. 2. Strangely or suspiciously odd; curious. 3. Tricky or deceitful.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition.  2000.

We are inclined to think about the comical side of humor without paying homage to the aspects that inspire exploration and discovery. Noticing the incongruous awakens our curiosity and sets in motion the search for resolution. Suspecting the deceitful inspires the investigation.

Edgy wit

The serial questioner has a mind capable of cutting through all manner of underbrush, confusion, propaganda, marketing, smog and fog. Questions are the tools for probing and exploring. Sharp edged at times and blunt at other times, questions enable us to exercise our wit.

1. The natural ability to perceive and understand; intelligence. 2a. Keenness and quickness of perception or discernment; ingenuity. Often used in the plural: living by one's wits. b. wits Sound mental faculties; sanity: scared out of my wits. 3a. The ability to perceive and express in an ingeniously humorous manner the relationship between seemingly incongruous or disparate things. b. One noted for this ability, especially one skilled in repartee. c. A person of exceptional intelligence
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition.  2000.

Delving into complex issues requires an array of digging strategies such as the following:

Beat the bushes, bore, burrow, cultivate, culture, cut, dig, dig out, dike, dredge, dress, drill, drive, excavate, explore, fertilize, forage, force, frisk, furrow, go through, gouge, gouge out, groove, grub, harrow, hoe, hollow, hunt, list, look around, look round, look through, lower, mine, mulch, nose around, plow, pocket, poke, poke around, prune, pry, quarry, rake, research, root, sap, scoop, scoop out, scrabble, scrape, scratch, search, search through, shovel, sink, smell around, spade, thin, thin out, till, till the soil, trench, trough, tunnel, vacancy, vacuity, vacuum, void, weed, weed out, work.
Source: The Thesaurus at HyperDictionary.Com

Vivid imagination

"Picture that!"

If you could not imagine the Grail, it would be difficult to seek it.

Moving civilization and culture forward involves the picturing of new lands, new possibilities and new ideas. Often we cradle these infants in our "Mind's Eye," wary of premature birth. We toy with potentials and possibilities on the off chance that one or more might survive the winnowing process and prove valuable.


WordNet Dictionary
[n]  mean-spirited disagreeable contrariness
Synonyms: orneriness
See Also: contrariness, perverseness, perversity
Disputatiousness and perversity (what the Americans
call ``cussedness''). --James Bryce.
Webster's 1913 Dictionary

Those who challenge conventional wisdom and the prized beliefs of the day are usually painted as heretics, non-conformists and malcontents. Their criticism and contentiousness are rarely welcomed. They, like whistle-blowers, are often shunned, exiled and pilloried.

This being the case, it takes an unusual spirit to stand up and point to naked emperors or false prophets. It requires courage to accuse a Joe McCarthy of demagoguery as did Edward R. Murrow during the 1950s:

We will not walk in fear, one of another. We are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular. This is no time . . . to keep silent.
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.

The serial questioner is not easily turned aside and away, is not readily satisfied with half truths and blandishments. Platitudes and bromides simply inspire renewed questioning.

In September, the author will explore the conditions and experiences likely to nurture the development of the serial questioner.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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