Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Revolution in Asking and Answering Questions

A WHILE BACK I was invited to give a TEDx talk at Palo Alto High School.  It's just down the road from the Googleplex, so I thought I'd give it a try.  

Their theme was "The Future..." and then left it up to the speakers to figure out what the coming future was going to be all about.  

There were speakers about Maker hardware, photography, biotech, and so on.  I chose to speak about the "The Coming Revolution in Asking and Answering Questions."  

The talk is a typical TED style talk--short, punchy, a mix of story and data, trying to get you excited about the topic and maybe delivering a few insights along the way.  

In my case, I wanted viewers to realize that technology profoundly influences our notions of knowledge... and research.  Question-answering systems are coming, and that this means we need to think about what real research skills are. 

Historically,  "doing research" meant doing a bunch of things that don't really have much to do with understanding.  You know what I mean:  going to the library, collecting photocopies of articles, organizing them, punching sets of holes so they'll go into your binder, copying data from one place to another, filtering it, cleaning things up.  If you think about it in terms of pure efficiency, doing research is hard partly because there's so many OTHER things you have to do along the way to get to your goal.  
So, what's the core of research?  

I think it's asking the right questions, getting some kind of answers back, and then iterating on that idea.  Ask a little, learn a little; refine your ideas and then test them out.  

But we don't do a lot of teaching about how to ask a good question.  As Google question-answering gets better and better, you can see the future is going to be more about questions and answers than about standing in front of a photocopier.   

We need to figure out how to teach our students what a great question is, and what a great answer would look like.  

Hope you enjoy the video


  1. The video:

    You are a great speaker and explainer. And Challenger.

    I had never heard of :p



    1. Thanks, Jon!

      The meaning of all the emoticons isn't really obvious unless you're part of the culture that uses them. In this particular case, that clearly wasn't so.

      Another example can be found in the poem "Night Before Christmas" where, it is said, "... and laying a finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose..."

      As a kid I always wondered: "What's with the finger beside the nose thing?"

      Not long ago I was visiting friends in Scotland. At one point in the conversation my friend Mary laid a finger aside of her nose and said "That's just between you and me..." and swiped her finger forward towards me.

      "STOP!" I shouted. "What does that hand gesture mean??"

      It turns out it's just what she'd said. The gesture, which would have been OBVIOUS to anyone reading the poem at the time, just means "this is our little secret... keep it between you and me."

      In the context of the poem, it makes perfect sense. The presence of Santa in the house is "our little secret."

      So, like emoticons, you have to grow up in the culture to understand the context of use. (Or read about it in blogs somewhere.)

    2. Dr Russell, thanks for sharing the video. Do you know a good place to learn more about emoticons and acronyms? they are each day more important and I am sure many of us didn't know much of them.


    3. Check out the WIkipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_emoticons

  2. Nicely done. I enjoy the weekly challenges but don't often post results. I have to laugh at the explanation above because the nose gesture could also be a reference to The Sting (the movie) where it is used to round up the crew and means the "Con is on". I guess that context is everything.

    1. I think it more-or-less means the same thing: "This is our secret thing."

  3. See: http://www.viviancheung.com/home/ashowofhands/img/poster.pdf
    Fingertip taps side of the nose:
    A) Indicates collusion between two people, implying “you and I have a secret that we’ll never tell”—derived from method which criminals used to hire police as “nosers” to inform on other criminals
    B) Game of charades, a way of calling dibs on something—“I got it!” or “shot gun!