Learning to ask the “right” questions

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a quick audiobook-inspired sketch from last week

Six forty-five in the morning. Light has barely touched the sky, and I’m sitting in AP biology class surrounded by my half-asleep friends as we shuffle through our immense binders for fresh note paper. Our teacher mills around the front of the classroom prepping slides, video links, and in-class demos to fill our tenth-grade brains with exciting new knowledge (massive shoutout, she was/is the best).

During those high school biology days, I clung to the goal of having all the right answers at the drop of a question (yeah, yeah, I was another wannabe Hermione Granger, so what?). My favorite part of the class was when our teacher would ask us about connections– what other parts of the body may this impact? What other portions of the ecosystem are interwoven here? How may genes influence entire populations of animals? Before this class, I hadn’t considered any of these questions and more. 

(An aside: just as I was writing this, I suddenly remembered that child-me actually wrote about this five years ago. Here’s a quick fun journey down memory lane.)

Even though she was vague about it, fifteen-year-old me was onto something when she saw science as a process of learning to ask the right questions. I thrived in that high school biology classroom because I built an intuition for seeing answers in connections, while my teacher was guiding us towards understanding what kinds of questions elicit rich fields of research and discovery. 

When I entered college, and especially when I started working in a lab for the first time, I was slapped across the face with feeling like I wasn’t well-equipped enough to ask those “right” questions with my existing knowledge. Just labeling myself as “curious” was no longer enough when presented with fourteen-page papers and the task to show up to lab meeting with questions. Sure, I would break into the paper and immediately have a billion questions– but most of them were highly Google-able and not worthy of bugging real scientists about. 

To combat this, I started pulling back in the number of questions I asked and instead shifted my focus to listening to other peoples’ questions. The notes I started making to myself in the margins of papers were no longer just definitions, they were reminders of other potentially-similar subjects off the top of my head. I fought hard to overcome every Google-able question and store those extra tidbits of information in my brain when reading the next paper, and the next after that. I went through the same process when I started working on aquarium exhibits, too. Yet, a lot of the time, I still didn’t (don’t) feel like I’m doing enough to be able to ask those “right” questions. 

This school year, I hit the same learning curve for asking questions when I started taking upper-division cognitive science courses– except, for some reason, with cognitive science everything clicked in my head so much quicker than it did for biology. Honestly, when I picked it up as my second major, I wasn’t even entirely sure I understood its purpose; however, as soon as I started reading papers in the field, I found myself with a new perspective, going down Internet rabbit-holes about how design research can effectively integrate cognitive science principles and more. I’m still untangling whether my increased ability to engagement with this subject exists because I find it easier or because it’s all a byproduct of learning how to learn last year, but through coursework I could feel the quick progression of cognitive science in my eyes from being a novelty to being a new lens through which to understand the world. I felt increasingly comfortable crafting questions, finding work other people have done to answer them, and speculating about research projects to tackle ones that may still need answers.

However, I definitely have not been the nicest to myself through this process of learning how to ask good questions (in both biology and in cognitive science). I sometimes forget that the content we cover in both high school and university-level courses is knowledge that’s been synthesized over so many years and, in many cases, is still undergoing testing and elaboration. As a result, I think I beat myself up a little more than I probably should when I don’t immediately grasp something as quickly as I feel I should. 

I’ve written about the media erasing the incremental nature of science, but I’ve also realized that rapid-paced science curriculum can be another example of how the scientific process tends to be erased in favor of highlighting the findings. It definitely makes sense that this is the case, since a big function of formal education is infusing students’ brains with as much knowledge as possible. On the other hand, since 2013, I’ve seen big changes come along in K-12 education with Next Generation Science Standards pushing focus on inquiry-based teaching methods; however, in my experiences, I feel like there’s even more space to grow especially in how science students are taught at the college-level.

In any case, through studying multiple subjects, I’ve started to understand that it’s less about asking the “right” questions and more about asking good ones. Sometimes I’ll have conversations with friends in which I feel like I’m grasping for flowery connections that don’t appear to exist within the subjects I study, but then they remind me that by nature, all hypothesizing is exactly that; what matters is that when pursuing answers, emerging connections should be examined with a close eye. High school Arya figured out for herself the extent to which science of all forms centers around searching for questions, and current Arya is excited to continue the hands-on process of searching.

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