The Lost “Art of Asking Questions”

A Harvard Business Review article entitled “Relearning the Art of Asking Questions” stated that “Proper questioning has become a lost art” (Pohlmann and Thomas, 2015; From this simple but tightly packed statement, we may deduce several important things:

One, there is a proper way of questioning. (See the four types of questioning to achieve different goals by clicking on the Pohlmann-Thomas article link provided above.)

Two, questioning is an art, an important skill.

Three, we have lost this important skill.

Four, we used to possess this important skill.

The article goes on to say that while children have been observed by their parents to ask many questions (as much as 70-80% of their interactions), the adults themselves estimated that they only ask questions about 15-25% of the time in their own talk. This is a steep fall – why? Why do children ask so many questions compared to adults? Is questioning a ‘survival’ skill of some kind? Many scholars and innovators hold the view that questioning is a critical skill in their practice and has contributed to their success.

Paul Sloane, the author of “The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills” and “The Innovative Leader” says that asking questions is “the single most important habit for innovative thinker” ( Sloane affirms the importance of asking questions to our growth. He writes:

“Children learn by asking questions. Students learn by asking questions. New recruits learn by asking questions. Innovators understand clients’ needs by asking questions. It is the simplest and most effective way of learning. People who think they know it all no longer ask questions – why should they? Brilliant thinkers never stop asking questions because they know that this is the best way to gain deeper insights”.

This view, of the importance of questioning to growth is shared by Google CEO Eric Schmidt when he said that Google runs “on questions, not answers”, because only through constant questioning can one arrive at better answers that will facilitate innovation and progress.

The NUS curriculum wants to reclaim and restore this lost art of questioning by offering a new compulsory university-wide module under the General Education (GE) Curriculum, that has been simply titled “Asking Questions” (or as the teaching team affectionately calls it – “Q”). This module adopts a multidisciplinary approach to introduce all NUS undergraduates to the different disciplinary modes of investigation through questioning. Newly launched this January 2017 semester, over 1,000 second and third semester undergraduates are currently undergoing a 6-segment introduction to disciplinary questioning – in Philosophy, Physics, Computational Thinking, Engineering, Economics and Design Thinking. We obtained the permission of a number of students currently taking the Q module to share their forum postings with us. This is what they have to say (italics added):

  • Is it too late to be teaching and learning about questioning now?

Evette: “So is it too late to start teaching questioning in university where most of our minds have been conditioned to only ask questions that can help us get the grade we want? My honest opinion is YES. But I also agree … that it is better late than never. There are pros and cons to teaching Q at this stage of our lives but as much as we are already off to a late start, I do believe that each of us will still take something away from this module.”

Thenappa: “I feel that questioning is an important life skill that is essential not only for undergraduates like us but also something that should be developed since young. I agree that questioning is important in all aspects of life. Top entrepreneurs of today like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are successful as a result of them asking the right questions at the right time. So much of our life depends on asking the right questions. It lets us clearly define problems and expectations. …. Throughout our 12 years of schooling we are not encouraged or taught how to ask questions. However, the moment we enter university, we are told that asking questions is important and it is crucial that we develop this skill with 1 semester of studying this module GEQ1000. Although questioning should be nurtured and nourished from young, at least it’s a start in this module that we are taught the basics of questioning and hopefully it improves over our undergraduate years at NUS.”

Dean: “This peculiar module seemed redundant to me at first: defining “questions” on a rhetorical level seems almost ridiculous at our age, given our years of academic experience …. But the more I think about it, the more I realised that General Education mods are meant to broaden our perspective. As we progress in this module and reach the other domains, perhaps we will come to realise that there are other methods of questioning that we have yet to apply to our life – the way a physics student questions is perhaps different from how a philosophy major questions? That is why I am assuming this mod has a vast range of domain that ranges from philosophy to physics.”

  • On the importance of questioning

Amos: “Personally I feel that questioning promotes and facilitates a deeper understanding of the given subject; it defines the learning experience. I can ramble on about the benefits of questioning such as how it can lead pupils through a planned sequence which progressively establishes key understanding or to promote reasoning, problem solving, evaluation and the formulation of hypotheses, but I feel this mod represents more than that. The purpose of this mod, shifts the limelight away from academics, studying merely for the grades but instead makes us ask [questions], look thoroughly and reflect on our actions. It makes us more inquisitive, curious without consequences. Plus it’s a good skill to be able to frame a question properly. After all our lives revolve a lot around questions and its answers.”

Daryl: “[W]ith regard to tutorial 2 [on Physics], I believe what we’ve done is a repeat of all the Physics SPA back in secondary school days and it was really funny how me and my group could not remember how to do it and in fact, got the result with the biggest outlier of 7.8. However, the key learning point from this was when I think back to my secondary school days, little did I know that every little action of mine could have led to such discrepancies in the results and it brings back the question, why did I not question myself back in secondary school? Why did I (we) just do what we were told to do? The [online lecture] video made me realise that while doing such experiments, we should adopt ontological thinking and question the nature of such experiments in order to understand the fundamentals of what the experiment seeks to teach us rather than just doing the experiment to obtain the desired results which were what most of us were probably doing in the past! Seeking answers isn’t wrong but through this week’s tutorial, I realise that there are a lot that we can learn from by asking questions of why and how.”

The Q forum discussion is already filled with lively exchanges of various kinds, from “Are there such things as ‘stupid’ questions?” to “Making sense of a university built on questions”. We are deeply gratified to read the above and many other forum postings that assured us we have made the right decision to launch this new module for all NUS undergraduates. With Q focused on Questioning, the GE curriculum now has a suite of courses that aim to provide the foundation for questioning (Asking Questions Pillar), thinking (Thinking and Expression Pillar), reasoning (Quantitative Reasoning Pillar), and supported by two other GE pillars on society (Singapore Studies Pillar) and cultures (Human Cultures Pillar). This is the NUS approach to inculcate essential skills, including infusing the invaluable art of questioning and a sense of (intellectual) curiosity that we believe will put our graduates in good stead as they move from university to work, and later, continue to learn as productive citizens in our society. We hope you will embrace this module in the same way as we and many Q students already do. Let’s join all our current students in Q to reclaim this lost art of questioning, together!



  1. While I’m surprised that it is necessary to have a generalised module to teach about asking questions, I do agree that asking questions is a very important life skill, or in other words, staying curious and inquisitive is a survival skill for the future.

    However, my experience with friends in the graduate school who are reluctant to ask questions tend to be sure to the environment rather than an inability to ask questions. Let me outline it below:
    (1) the unsuitability of the environment: in a big class of above 30 students, unless the lecturer has excellent facilitation skills, it is without a doubt that the most outspoken ones will dominate the conversations in class. This is not the matter of the art of questioning, but rather the matter of being comfortable with voicing out despite being in a new or foreign environment, or if you prefer thinking deeply before answering, the environment the school fosters reward the quick thinkers (who aren’t necessarily the deepest thinkers). To create an environment that encourage questions (like in McKinsey, where they make it an obligation for employees to “dissent”), classes need to be smaller or flatter (the purpose of tutorials or seminar classes or flipped classrooms), some classes are incentivizing class participation, and most importantly, lecturers need to have better crowd control and they themselves have to ask good critical questions that promote further questions.
    (2) online communities are supposed to mitigate this by providing a platform for students who are not comfortable with the language or those who prefer thinking in depth before answering. Personally, I do not think NUS is fully capitalising on this platform. Perhaps moving towards a chat-based course platform might work better than outdated forums.

    Anyway, this seems like a good initiative as I agree it’s better late than never to start building thevents culture of inquisitiveness.

  2. I have not been through the GE mod on Asking Questions. However, I am grateful for profs who encourage us to ponder and ask – it sieves out blind spots in our thinking. Professors, reading material and discussions with fellow students open new perspectives and challenge entrenched views. It will take some time to forge a culture of asking and questioning, but renewed focus places us on the right track.

  3. So is the art of asking questions also about asking those very difficult, controversial and borderline offensive questions that invoke strong emotions from people?

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