The Big Question from the Learning Circuits Blog (LCB) this month is centered on inquiry. Specifically, the question is "What Questions Should We Be Asking?" If you are one of the 4 longtime readers of this blog, you will know that I am a big fan of questions (1,2,3) so first kudos to LCB for engaging this valuable activity.
Now I want to say that I don't think that my own contribution to this question would be most valuable if it focused on specific learning questions...I'm just not that smart and I am more than content to sit back and learn from people like Tony and Wendy and Karyn and Clark and Karl and Tom.
What I do think I can add is something about the process of inquiry in the first place. As you can see on my blog, one of my favorite quotes is:
"“Common to most anthropologists is a contrarian readiness to search out diverse, improbable kinds of patterning, to be skeptical of commonly accepted categories or boundaries, and to employ varying temporal and geographic scales as tools of inquiry.”
Robert McC. Adams, Paths of Fire: An Anthropologist’s Inquiry Into Western Technology, 1996.
Another favorite of mine is a book about dead cats. Robert Darnton, in his book The Great Cat Massacre, (p. 78 to be exact ) talks about how as he is reading accounts of the life of printing apprentices in Paris in the early 1700's, he came across a story of a large-scale slaughter of cats carried out by the apprentices...the odd thing to Darnton was that the story was told as a joke or as something that was tremendously funny. He was repulsed by the story but looked at that repulsion as a breakdown in cultural understanding between him and the workers. This gap or distance he argued "may serve as the starting point of an investigation, for anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque. When you realize that you are not getting something—a joke, a proverb, a ceremony—that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it. By getting the joke of the great cat massacre, it may be possible to "get" a basic ingredient of artisan culture under the Old Regime."
Finally from Savage Minds comes this passage from the 1899 Notes and Queries on Anthropology (courtesy of Google Books):
"It is almost impossible to make a savage in the lower stages of culture understand why the questions are asked, and from the limited range of his vocabulary or of ideas it is often nearly as difficult to put the question before him in such a way as he can comprehend it. The result often is that from timidity, or the desire to please, or from weariness of the questioning, he will give an answer that he thinks will satisfy the inquirer. If time serve, these difficulties can easily be overcome by friendly intercourse, and a careful checking of answers through different individuals"
(87 – 88).
So what is the connecting tissue here? I think there are just some lessons on how maybe we can think when we are coming up and asking all these great questions. One attempted summary could be:
1. Do not be afraid to be a contrarian. To paraphrase, no progress was ever made by satisfied people.
2. Do not stick to one set of tools for all your inquiries. There is value to be found by looking at the same problem in different ways.
3. Look for the joke you don't get.
4. Do not, out of timidity, desire to please or weariness, accept easy answers or ask easy questions.
5. Check the answers you get against multiple sources.
That's my attempt anyway. If you want some additional background from one of the seminal sources on how to conduct interviews, try Learning How To Ask.