Research Cycle

 The Question Mark

 Vol 2|No 5|May|2006
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Learning Questioning

By Jamie McKenzie

© 2005 Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

About the author.

This article first appeared as Chapter Seven in Jamie McKenzie's book, Learning to Question to Wonder to Learn which is available for purchase at

This article is available for downloading as a PDF file (click here).

What skills should accompany the attitudes outlined in the previous chapter?

A hunger for answers amounts to little if we cannot equip the young with the tools to dig, delve and divine the truth. This is not a matter of divining rods or magic wands - rather an array of questioning and thinking strategies that make exploration, discovery and invention possible.

This chapter reviews more than a dozen strategies that are crucial but all too often neglected by schooling and programs that profess to teach thinking.

1. Orchestration

Chief among the strategies in the diagram above would be the smart selection and orchestration of question types - an understanding of when each question type should be applied to the challenge at hand.

Thinkers cannot rely upon recipes, scripts or prescribed patterns. They must often make up their approach as they proceed. Each important quest or investigation requires customization and adaptation. The thought process, if it could be captured visually, might appear like a pinball bouncing from point to point, as the mind darts and weaves from here to there, trying first one and then another tack. Or the thought process might resemble a flock of sloops cutting back and forth across the wind. Or sometimes it might look more like a fire- fireworks display, a shooting star, a cat chasing its tail or a dust devil, spinning and spinning intently across apparently barren earth.

Just as those who conduct orchestras will bring each section into the performance at the right time and right tempo - horns, woodwinds, strings and percussion all in their places - the thinker must do some of the same directing, playing with dissonance, resonance, harmony and other aspects of idea flow, contrast and conflict to generate the sparks, energy and illumination required to fashion new meanings. In contrast with the conductor, however the thinker’s work is fundamentally improvisational with hardly any score or sheet music to guide the exploration. The process is often intuitive and whimsical rather than strictly linear, logical or sequential with the mind dancing about in ways that sometimes seem errant, absurd and distracted.

The thinker must nurture the magical aspects of exploration while tempering those tendencies with occasional doses of logic and analysis. Above all, then, the thinker must be conscious of some of the process, at least part of the time, occupying a mental crow’s nest to view the action on the brain’s “deck,” intervening from time to time to stimulate, redirect or manage the discovery process.

Over the years, schools have rarely invested in showing young ones how to manage this kind of thinking, with the possible exception of some efforts that emerged along with the gifted education movement during the 1980s, but many of those efforts leaned rather heavily on the logical, analytical and structured processes without enough attention to the more intuitive aspects of creative production.

We might turn to jazz musicians for one source of inspiration as we consider the meaning of the statement, “Now you’re cookin.” While a jazz performance may follow a basic melody line to some extent, the musicians often play all around those lines and wander far afield, allowing their instincts and feelings to weave magical sounds that emerge on the spur of the moment.

Keith Jarrett, a jazz pianist who was long known for exceptional improvisation, once described how much each audience could shape an evening’s performance as he would enter the concert hall, feel the energy of the group and find music actually passing through him and his fingers into the piano and then back into the room.

Writers and visual artists often speak or write of inspiration in similar terms, as if they are the vehicle for something outside that flows through them. The Greeks and Romans tried to capture some of this phenomenon with figures like the Muses, and creative thinkers, artists and performers have been seeking their Muses for centuries since that time. Sadly, some seek them in the bottom of bottles, in clouds of smoke or in heated spoons.

The powerful recent movie, “Ray,” paints a compelling portrait of Ray Charles struggling with musical invention, fame and drug addiction as he rose to the tops of the charts and changed the landscape of American music. Ray Charles was a talented imitator, but the film shows his career limping along until he moved towards more originality.

It requires an odd combination of surrender and management to harness these tremors, glimmers and possibilities in ways that show up in writing, art or performance without losing one’s grip and succumbing to the temptations and diversions that haunted Ray Charles and threatened to derail his life and work.

How can this best be learned?

It helps to share healthy stories of invention, imagination and creativity while children are still very young, identifying the positive elements as they evolved during the lives of good writers, musicians, artists and others.

Once familiar with the stories, children can be engaged in creative tasks that require a balance between surrender and control, using watercolor washes, for example, to paint a sunset.

Watercolor has a way of flowing somewhat independently from the artist’s intent so that good painters learn to play with that errant quality and use it to good advantage. Others try to dominate the medium in ways that constrain its power and possibilities, superimposing techniques that might work better with oil and canvass.

Trite as the expression has become, “Go with the flow!” captures some of the spirit, mood and stance we hope to engender. Unfortunately, many activities launched in schools may rely a bit upon templates, models and patterns that do little to provoke the kind of playful spirit actually required to produce something original and noteworthy.

Roger von Oech has written some of the best books about this process. His Whack on the Side of the Head identifies the many mental locks that can block creative production

2. Supposition

Why do you suppose?

How do you suppose?

What might happen if?

To a large extent, inventive thinking involves informed guess work, hypothesis testing and speculation. The thinker attempts to construct a theory and then tests to see if it matches reality. This process works best if one is conscious of the construction and testing while it proceeds. One plays with possibilities, tugging first this way and then that way until some semblance of order and sensibility emerges.

Much of this work begins with cognitive dissonance, the recognition that some aspect of life or society is tilted awry or in need of attention. We wonder how we might set things straight, make them better, address a grievance or right a wrong. We ask what might happen if . . .

The search for a new way, an improved approach or a solution to a problem is in some respects an attempt to brings things into harmony, to establish a degree of resonance. We try to transform what is chaotic, confused or disordered into something more regular, more patterned and more sensible.

Supposition is closely associated with imagination - the ability to picture things differently.

3. Imagination

Imagine that!

The thinker must be able to conceive of new possibilities, variations, combinations and twists to reshape reality and move the culture forward. Even though some claim that “there are no new ideas under the sun,” novelty is a persistent and formative aspect of modern society, one that is often prized in the work place and the community. Countering the pessimism of “no new ideas” would be sayings about variety as the spice of life and the importance of originality.

The principal mark of genius is not perfection but originality, the opening of new frontiers.
Koestler, Arthur
To the old, the new is usually bad news.
Eric Hoffer

Many of our greatest thinkers have used mental imagery to explore complex terrain and generate new possibilities. It makes sense that “image” is the root of “imagination” since picturing is central to this thought process - the use of the mind’s eye to play with ideas and phenomena. To conceive of something new, we try to picture it.

Visual thinking is yet another aspect of thinking that has been neglected by too many schools or relegated to art classrooms rather than explored across the curriculum. If Newton and Einstein made powerful use of this kind of thinking, why do we see so little attention devoted to it in the science curriculum?

Perhaps we give the message that most people are condemned to memorize the imaginings of a select few, that imagination and novel thought is a rare accident of birth bestowed upon just a handful of poets, artists, scientists and philosophers whose musings the rest of us digest, commit to memory and rely upon to guide us through life. This elitist view is a self-fulfilling prophecy in too many schools. When we set such limited expectations, we are rarely surprised.

There are many effective ways to develop the power of the mind’s eye and this kind of imaginative thinking. Visual thinking (Arnheim, 1969), a classic in the field, helped clarify the challenge and the opportunity, but since then there have dozens of programs aimed at making the sketching of ideas a basic skill, none of which have been widely adopted in schools.

Often we relegate visual thinking to the creative arts program, if we have one, and the challenge of applying such thought to social, scientific and mathematical issues for the most part sits unaddressed and unattended.

If we prize imaginative thought, we might invest in more programs to make it central to schooling and learning.

Imagine that!

4. Doubt and Wonder

While it is rarely celebrated as a major thinking skill, doubt drives some of the most productive new thought. Unquestioning loyalty to past procedures and the way things are “spozed to be” leads to blindness and paralysis. Certainty can be the enemy of both learning and innovation as old patterns and perceptions act like blinders to narrow choices and limit opportunities.

Although doubt is usually portrayed as a negative attitude, it is closely related to wondering, as we wonder how things could be different or better. Reliance upon conventional wisdom in a non-questioning manner is a recipe for disappointment.

Self doubt is an entirely different matter, as the thinker must maintain faith in the inquiry and confidence in the results. Given the frustrating and challenging nature of inquiry, the thinker must be quite resolute, capable of persisting through many periods of disappointing results.

Can we teach the young to be reasonably and responsibly skeptical regarding the world around them? Certainly. But it is a delicate matter, as Socrates discovered long ago, to show the young how they might challenge authority and conventional wisdom in a constructive and productive manner. Some sectors of the society would prefer we leave well enough alone as their power may rest on the unquestioning loyalty and obedience of the populace.

More than thirty years ago in Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Postman and Weingartner proposed that we equip the young with “crap detectors,” the equivalent of a doubting thinking cap. Edward deBono, a more corporate source of inspiration, devotes an entire hat to critical and doubtful thinking in his Six Thinking Hats book. Balanced by other types of thinking, doubt plays a critically important role in identifying opportunities.

5. Consultation

Smart thinkers know how and when to check their thinking with good friends, critics, skeptics, seers and various folks who might help point out fallacies, suggest modifications and improve the end product. This skill is very difficult in practice since it requires sorting through a range of suggestions and comments, many of which may not be valuable and some of which may be quite wrong-minded. Creative thinkers must filter the suggestions, sorting and sifting, considering, reviewing and adapting incoming ideas to blend with the thinking work already started.

Many a good thinker has been seduced, distracted and unduly influenced by the ideas of others. It is difficult to invite and then manage this type of input without losing one’s own voice, vision and special way of approaching the question or issue at hand.

In the early stages of one’s journey, consultation may involve something like an apprenticeship. This may evolve into something more like a jam session as thinkers bounce ideas off each other. But the ultimate level of consultation engages masters of thought in an exchange that can be intense, intimidating and overwhelming even as it may prove illuminating.

This learning process may begin in school if teachers establish communities of thinkers within their classrooms, equipping all students with the group skills to support each other in reflecting about their work on thinking and questioning.

6. Extension, Refinement, Elaboration

Starting with what they know and the ideas they have at hand, thinkers can push them toward their limits, using a half dozen techniques to amplify, exaggerate, stretch, bend, distort, twist, blur or sharpen the concept, theory or model under consideration.

The process is akin to the refinement applied by a jazz musician playing around with a melody - variations on a theme. He or she might shift the amount of vibrato, the volume, the tone or the color of the music when it is time for a solo.

It might be a matter of filling in what is missing, fleshing out what was just a sketch or a skeleton of an idea. Perhaps the thinker needs to polish or sharpen the idea, eliminating rough edges and making sure the elements mesh in a supportive, coherent manner.

7. Testing

A thinker may learn the strengths or weaknesses of an idea or theory by dropping it into a realistic context to see how it fares. Hypothesis testing. Does the theory capture reality? Does the idea stand up to scrutiny? Is it mere abstraction or is it cutting edge? Will the idea draw blood? Cut a swathe? Can it take flight? Start a fire? Stay lit?

Some thinkers have a tough time coming up with ideas that are practical and sustainable. Pipe dreams and pie in the sky have their place in the creative process, but ideas must prove themselves in real terms. The testing process might disprove and dismiss the idea, but it might also point out weaknesses or fallacies that can be corrected and adjusted, thus actually strengthening the idea and adding to its value.

In some sectors of the society, this shaping of ideas is called prototyping as successive versions are tested, modified and tested again until the end result can function effectively within whatever context is intended. In this view, ideas are much like products moving from imagination to the market place.

An advertising firm has several strategies in mind for the launch of a new product. Rather than throw all their funds behind one idea, they test all three in the market with small samples. Their favorite before this test fails dramatically, so they bring in a focus group to figure out why. They learn they had offended many people by their use of slang and bad language. This they can correct.

The test saves them from embarrassment and financial loss. They can shift course, make changes and improve the product. Moving from theory into practice requires just such grounding in reality. Ideas in the abstract run the risk of still birth if they are rushed into the world too soon.

8. Tension, Reversal & Juxtaposition

Contrast and comparison provoke thought, just as incongruity raises an eyebrow and causes one to reconsider.

Dissonance creates the energy to consider different ways of thinking and to break away from the restraints of standard patterns, beliefs and procedures. The contrast, conflict and tension provoke originality.

In musical theory and composition, counterpoint is a device to develop ideas that are more complex and intriguing than simple melodies as one or more notes are played off against each other in various combinations and patterns. Note discussion from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, at

Thinkers seek conflict and contention as a stimulant and inspiration. Like the musical composer, they intentionally set up counterpoint, hoping that the resulting “mind storms,” as Pappert called them in his book of that title, will stimulate their thought and lead them to important new discoveries.

Timothy M. Melchior explains how his school district invented a model of thinking that they call “Counterpoint thinking” in his article, “Counterpoint thinking: Connecting Learning and thinking in Schools,” available at

Presented with one of ten counterpoints such as Inhumanity/Sensitivity, the students learn to avoid false dichotomies and tolerate ambiguity.

Melchior concludes . . .

“We believe that the concept of the Counterpoints helps our students to become less impulsive and more reflective, more tolerant of ambiguity and less certain, and more open and more flexible in their thinking and less categorical in their judgments. In addition, we try to teach students to resist what we call the certainty principle and the hardening of the categories, to be open to problems, new ideas, and new challenges. Most importantly, we try to teach our students that confusion is not something to be abhorred and that it can be an opportunity for growth.”

In this case, juxtaposition and contrast are employed to deepen students’ understanding of complexity and to stave off their rush toward premature resolution.

The thinker must learn to hold things in the balance rather than collapse into the soft center or fall for the false dichotomy.

9. Preparation & Grounding

Ironically, the thinker must usually acquire a solid foundation in the thinking of the sages, the theories of the experts and the beliefs of the academy in order to build something new and worthwhile. Invention rarely thrives on ignorance. Breakaway thinking needs a wall of ideas to push off against.

In the world of jazz, young performers must master a repertory of chord progressions and harmonies so that they can count on them as structures around which and through which they might weave more magical variations.

Schools may do a good job of introducing young folks to conventional wisdom but they do not always help with the challenging part. Hence the expression, “another brick in the wall.” Thinkers cannot rely upon these institutionalized cram courses in what some call cultural literacy, however, because those who select the nuggets often bring bias and various agendas to the selection process that might leave the young person filled but not satisfied. They must learn to identify what it is that they do not know that they ought to know, to fill in the gaps and figure out what is missing.

Thinkers learn to do exhaustive literature searches so they can give due consideration to the best (and worst) thinking that has been done on the issue at hand.

10. Play, Experimentation & Improvisation

Original --------------------- Twirl -------------- Pointilize ------------ Wind Blast

The thinker brings a toying spirit to the challenge of exploring and inventing, testing out a wide variety of changes and variations “just for the fun of it.” The use of filters in an image editing program such as PhotoShop is a good metaphor for this type of experimentation. The user may apply dozens of changes to an image and then adjust each of those changes to a level that might be appealing.

The same playful manipulation can also be done with an idea or a melody.

It is a bit difficult to demonstrate this process impressively on the pages of this book, given the conversion of a color shot into black and white for printing purposes, but a few versions of a light house should serve to make the point. The number of choices and combinations of choices is nearly unlimited for the user of PhotoShop and the same can be said for the thinker, as many of the changes made to visual images can be made to ideas.

PhotoShop Filter Categories

  • Artistic filters Blur filters
  • Brush Stroke filters Distort filters
  • Noise filters Pixelate filters
  • Render filters Sharpen filters
  • Sketch filters Stylize filters
  • Texture filters Video filters
  • Other filters Digimarc filters
  • Lighting Effects filter

Each category offers about a dozen options.

In the case of artistic filters, for example, there are fifteen choices.

  • Colored Pencil Cutout
  • Dry Brush Film Grain
  • Fresco Neon Glow
  • Paint Daubs Palette Knife
  • Plastic Wrap Poster Edges
  • Rough Pastels Smudge Stick
  • Sponge Underpainting
  • Watercolor, etc.

There are other menus offering dozens of other adjustments and changes, many of which have counterparts when making changes in music and ideas whether it be tone or contrast, intensity or hue.

Playing with such changes requires a combination of skill and attitude. The thinker must be inclined to try out many variations to see the effect of each. It is important to withhold judgment. To the casual observer it might seem as if this idea play is nothing more than diddling or fiddling about, flirting with ideas rather than constructing them in serious ways, but the process is central to inventive thought.

Often, the mind performs some of this playful manipulation at a subconscious level as ideas incubate in between more conscious thinking times. Thus, we find some of the most startling new insights suddenly pop to the surface during a morning run or a walk along a stream. Such a startling insight is often called an “Aha.”

But thinkers should be able to conduct such idea play on a conscious level as well, employing a wide array of strategies like those built into PhotoShop to toy around with ideas until inspiration emerges.

11. Purposeful Wandering

New ideas often surface when the thinker can change contexts and move laterally, as Edward de Bono would put it, exploring possibilities with a fresh view. “Getting out of the box,” another de Bono expression for this process, enriches the chances of novelty and invention. We are all prisoners, to some extent, of the organizations and cultures we inhabit. These social environments may shape much of our thinking in ways that are subtle so that sometimes we are unaware of their influence.

When thinkers elect to take an excursion, they are hoping that the change will do them good, that they will enjoy chance encounters with vivid and startling experiences that may refresh their thinking and awaken them to previously unthinkable prospects.

In writing this book, the author was shocked into recognizing the negative aspects of wonder, for example, during a morning run along the River Seine in Paris when the bells of Notre Dame first filled him with awe but then inspired a series of thoughts that raised the negative aspects of wonder as a tool of social control and propaganda.

One need not climb aboard a train or airplane to change context. Sometimes it is enough to stroll around the block, drive to a park or go for swim. On the other hand, more dramatic geographical and cultural shifts can often provoke more striking revelations as we are released from our normal surroundings.

12. Surrender

There are times when the thinker must relax, must suspend judgment and must open up to the flow of possibilities from outside, allowing serendipity to visit. The thinker must invite this flow. This kind of surrender is not a form of capitulation or defeat. The thinker is yielding and susceptible to the influence of unusual thoughts and thought progressions. Vulnerability, versatility and pliability combine as the thinker welcomes new directions and is actually intent on an idea altering experience. He or she is eager to experience a change of mind. The thinker is adaptable and adaptive, blending and accommodating new thoughts into the pack of pre-existing thoughts.

Relaxing and opening up in this way when wrestling with a tough thinking challenge can be most difficult, as focus and intensity seem to be essential much of the rest of the time. Relaxing seems counter intuitive. Deliberately and effectively switching gears and moods to create optimal learning and thinking conditions is not a skill set that is usually taught in any explicit manner, so young ones are apt to grow up thinking that inspiration is a mystical process that requires visits from the Muses or the use of some artificial mood enhancer such as alcohol or magic mushrooms.

The culture is full of informal expressions that touch upon this challenge as we are alternately advised to “chill out” (meaning relax and calm down) or to “get a grip.” Just as confounding is the request that we “get our head around” an idea. This is a difficult task to picture or imagine.

Creating something new rarely requires mere grasping, so we might get our minds around someone else’s idea, but the phrase hardly captures the birthing of new ideas. It works for understanding ideas but falls short for invention.

During the early stages of invention the thinker welcomes the arrival of new ideas and possibilities but then must become acquainted with them and consider how to fuse the new with the earlier thought. Welcoming the new is just the beginning of a complex sorting, sifting and considering process.

13. Synthesis

The thinker skillfully shifts the puzzle pieces of an idea around until a new picture emerges from the fragments. The thinker composes by moving the elements around, combining, melding, mixing and modifying them in new and different ways, It is not a simple matter of collecting, compiling and compressing. It is not mere smushing and combining or rearranging.

Unfortunately, the term synthesis is used rather freely in various state or provincial curriculum documents in ways that show little understanding of the complex process required. Too often it seems these documents really mean collecting rather than inventing. A “best evidence synthesis” is a carefully organized collection. While this type of synthesis has its place, this book will focus on more powerful types of synthesis.

The type of synthesis required for authentic thought has more to do with invention and originality than collection. It is what the thinker does with the collection that matters most, but it is this aspect of synthesis that is often neglected or ignored. Research too often stops at the collection and smushing stage.

Synthesis should serve a valuable purpose and the new composition should pass tests of quality, practicality and worth. If the team is asked to come up with an action plan to solve the problems of the Snake River, for example, it is not enough to find out what has been done in the past and smush it together into a slightly new version. This is merely “Same Old” masquerading as “New New Thing.”

Such minor twisting and adjustment without depth and value is akin to the “change one word in each sentence” game played by young students trying to avoid plagiarism. Old, worn out ideas and strategies remain old and worn out if they do not match the problem-solving task at hand. The thinker must do more than come up with a plan that is new, however. Novelty does not suffice. The plan must also work.

It is easy to change the order of beads in a necklace, a perfect example of synthesis, but it is much harder to combine those beads in a more pleasing and artful manner that would stand up to some aesthetic design standards. We do not seek change for change sake. Synthesis should serve a higher purpose, some essential and striking betterment of what we know and what we have been doing.

“Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” shows synthesis at its least consequential. Planners, leaders and ship captains may skirt essential issues and questions in favor of some kind of trivial pursuit that substitutes for real synthesis. In such cases we end up with virtual change rather than something worthwhile, enduring and special, or we end up with failed policies and the equivalent of ice bergs looming down on us through the fog. Planners and leaders will some times pay lip service to synthesis, creating nothing more than the illusion or change.


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