From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 7|No 3|November-December|1997

A Questioning Toolkit continued . . .


Unanswerable Questions are the ultimate challenge.

They serve like boundary stones, helping us to tell us when we have pushed insight to its outer limits. When exploring essential questions (most of which are unanswerable in the ultimate sense) we may have to settle for "casting light" upon them. When wrestling with these Unanswerable Questions we may never find Truth, but we may illuminate . . . extend the level of understanding and reduce the intensity of the darkness.

The real questions are the ones that obtrude upon your consciousness whether you like it or not, the ones that make your mind start vibrating like a jackhammer, the ones that you "come to terms with" only to discover that they are still there. The real questions refuse to be placated. They barge into your life at the times when it seems most important for them to stay away. They are the questions asked most frequently and answered most inadequately, the ones that reveal their true natures slowly, reluctantly, most often against your will.

Ingrid Bengis, Combat in the Erogenous Zone, "Man-Hating" (1973).

  • How will I be remembered?
  • How much can anyone resist Fate's will?
  • What is the Good Life?
  • What is friendship?
  • How would life be different if . . .


Students wrestling with Essential Questions must be prepared for the strong likelihood that their questions may be Unanswerable. They must be taught that this reality is perfectly acceptable and is no signal to stop searching and thinking.

Inventive Questions turn our findings inside out and upside down. They distort, modify, adjust, rearrange, alter, twist and turn the bits and pieces we have picked up along the way until we can shout "Aha!" and proclaim the discovery of something brand new.

  • How do I make sense of these bits and bytes and pieces?
  • What does all this information really mean?
  • How can I rearrange what I have gathered so that some picture or new insight emerges?
  • What needs to be eliminated or reversed or modified in order to make better sense of my findings?
  • What is still missing?
  • Can any information be regrouped or combined in ways which help meaning to emerge?
  • Can I display this information or data in a way which will cast more light on my essential question?


Provocative Questions are meant to push, to challenge and to throw conventional wisdom off balance. They give free rein to doubt, disbelief and skepticism.

The best servants of the people, like the best valets, must whisper unpleasant truths in the master's ear. It is the court fool, not the foolish courtier, whom the king can least afford to lose.

Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, ch. 6 (1914).

Ancient empires and kingdoms in China often employed a court jester or fool whose job it was to challenge and make fun of policies and ideas and key players surrounding the king or queen. The fool could often get away with a level of questioning which would never have been permitted a "legitimate" member of the council. On the other hand, (as is pointed out in this extensive online article about jesters) the fool might also lose his head if the king or queen took offense. A dangerous occupation!

Closely associated with Divergent Questions and Irreverent Questions, Provocative Questions help provide the basis for satire, parody, and expose whether it be Gulliver's Travels, Alice in Wonderland , DILBERT or Seymour Hersh's recently released The Dark Side of Camelot. These plays and stories poke fun at politicians and leaders in ways which help protect us from excessive deference or what is fondly called "spin" today. (Visit this Web page for an extensive bibliography on satire and parody.)

In the case of student research, we have probably devoted too little attention to irony, satire and parody as an important element in "open systems," a term which describes responsive (and healthy) political systems as well as organizations of various kinds such as schools and corporations.

When inspired by a desire to understand the Truth, Provocative Questions play a positive role in debunking propaganda, mythologies, hype, bandwagons and the Big Lie. They help us to remove the "bunk" or "claptrap" and determine if there is any substance worth considering. In a time of what Toffler calls "info-tactics" such questions become an essential tool for any citizen in a democratic society.

In an age of info-glut and info-garbage, we must equip students with questions which enable them to separate out meaning from all the competing variants of BLATHER (quoted here from Roget's Thesaurus). . .

empty talk, idle speeches, sweet nothings, endearments, wind, gas, hot air, vaporing, verbiage, DIFFUSENESS

rant, ranting and raving, bombast, fustian, rodomontade, BOASTING

blether, blather, blah-blah-blah, flimflam

guff, hogwash, eyewash, claptrap, poppycock, FABLE


malarkey, hokum, bunkum, bunk, baloney, hooey

flummery, blarney, FLATTERY

sales talk, patter, sales patter, spiel

talk, chatter, prattle, prating, yammering, babble, gabble, jabber, jibber jabber, jaw, yackety-yak, yak yak, rhubarb, CHATTER


  • Where's the beef? content? substance? logic? evidence?
  • What is the source? Is the source reliable?
  • What's the point? Is there a point?
  • Cutting past the noise and the rhetoric, is there any insight, knowledge or worthwhile information here?

Irrelevant Questions take us far afield, distract us and threaten to divert us from the task at hand. And that is their beauty!

Truth almost never appears where we might look logically. The creation of new knowledge almost always requires some wandering off course. The more we cling to coastline, the less apt we are to find the New World. As Melville so dramatically pointed out in Moby Dick, the search for Truth requires the courage to venture out and away from the familiar and the known . . .

Divergent Questions use existing knowledge as a base from which to "kick off" like a swimmer making a turn. They move more logically from the core of conventional knowledge and experience than irrelevant questions. They are more carefully planned to explore territory which is adjacent to that which is known or understood.

Trying to find a way to restore water quality in a lake or stream? If we limit our search to successful attempts, we may miss out on the chance to avoid other people's mistakes. Sometimes we learn more by studying the opposite of our main target.

In the same sense, we may want to check out efforts to restore air quality and other tangentially related efforts. We may even explore efforts to re-introduce endangered species to various habitats. New ideas are rarely sitting waiting for us in obvious places.

The ability to freely associate related topics and questions greatly increases the odds that researchers will make important discoveries.

   But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God --so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! (click for full text of this selection)

Irreverent Questions explore territory which is "off-limits" or taboo. They challenge far more than conventional wisdom. They hold no respect for authority or institutions or myths. They leap over, under or through walls and rules and regulations.

Socrates found himself in considerable trouble for showing the youth of Athens how to ask Irreverent Questions, and we need to remember that such questions are not universally appreciated. In fact, some folks find such questioning disrespectful and impolite. They question the value of Irreverent Questions.

It is the human condition to question one god after another, one appearance after another, or better, one apparition after another, always pursuing the truth of the imagination, which is not the same as the truth of appearance.

Alain [Émile-Auguste Chartier], The Gods

Corporations like IBM have learned that today's heretic - the one with the courage, the tenacity and the brash conviction to question the way things are "spozed to be" - often turns out to be a prophet of sorts. The Emperor's New Clothes is the classic story showing what happens when Irreverent Questions are discouraged and obedience, subservience and compliance are prized. The emperor parades naked. The corporation clings blindly to old beliefs.

Drawings, photographs and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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