Questions are better when there are no answers

The original Rubik's CubeI heard about someone recently who said they refuse to do crosswords because they ‘didn’t want to waste time solving a problem for which the answer is already known by someone else.’

It’s an interesting viewpoint.

When we attempt to solve a puzzle set by someone else, we are really attempting to re-modeling our thought processes into the same setup as the author of the puzzle.

This is nowhere more true than in exam situations. The candidate is trying to get inside the head of the examiner to deliver the answer they are looking for.

This is why, when we understand how a particular problem works, such as a computer adventure game or lateral thinking puzzle, we know the formulae and get complete the tasks quite quickly.

I’m quite proud that I can complete the Rubik’s Cube. I shouldn’t be though. I could only figure out how to complete one side on my own. Then someone showed me the moves to complete it. At one point I could complete the cube, from any position, in 30 seconds. It’s a great party trick and a wonderful boast, but am I really being that clever? Does learning a set number of moves, i.e. having a standard set ways of solving a problem, make me remarkable or creative? I think you’ll agree that it does not. Anyone can learn those moves and anyone can then solve the Rubik’s Cube in no time.

The point is this: having learnt the moves to solve the cube allows me to solve the cube. It does not allow me to solve any other puzzle.

The Rubik’s Cube is a good example as unlike most puzzles it has no set way of solving it. There are as many ways are there are moves, which is 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 moves (i.e. 43 quintillion).

Had I worked out the inter-spacial relationships of the elements of the cube and how they moved as the sides were turned, I would have had to engage my brain in a totally different way than I did by following someone else’s instruction. I would have, hopefully, worked out my own method of solving the puzzle. The difference between the two methods would have been that my brain would have been uniquely stretched by the experience of figuring it out from first principles.

What if it’s the same for exams? What if the subject is taught as a set number of moves to get to the required answer which is then used in the exam to complete the cube in the set, required way?

You might well say that it’s a waste of time, figuring out everything for yourself when you can take the short cut by asking for help. What’s wrong with learning the quick way to do things? After all, it’ll take a long time for students to figure out how to get there themselves, we can give them much more data by handing them the answer which they can easily memorise.

That’s true, but it’s also a curse. With somethings it’s right to just hand the student the tool and say, ‘use it like this’. After all, if you were to get a job with the council emptying the town’s bins, they don’t want you having to figure out the most efficient route, they don’t want you to organise the methods of collection and they don’t want you to innovate the machinery. They just want you to do as you’re told and empty the bins.

I’ve nothing against binmen. It’s an honourable job in my eyes. The problem is that we might well be training all our people to be binmen. The fact that they don’t all empty bins is irrelevant; they’re being trained to do a particular pre-arranged task in a set way using predetermined tools.

And just like me and the Rubik’s Cube, we all think we’re being clever but in fact we’re just maintaining the status quo and working in an environment where innovation is non-existent.

Don’t get me wrong, this is often a very good thing. Somebody has to empty the bins. And sometimes the system is so good that innovation is not needed. Look at bees; they haven’t changed how they operate their hives in millions of years, they’ve got such a great system.  But what if something changes in the environment? What if a new disease spreads through the hives or human intervention changes the flora surrounding the hives or even moves the hives on lorries around the country? What resources do the bees have to cope with such change? The answer is that they have none. All they can do is rely on the natural selection process of the survival of the fittest in a vain unconscious hope that by some random chance some mutation in their genes might just give them an advantage.

Humans don’t (and can’t) operate in that way. The survival of our species, our civilisation and culture, (not to mention your life and business), relies on cerebral innovation: of thinking our way out of problems.

Just being able to empty the bins and solve the Rubik’s Cube because someone else showed us how is not going to cut it.

Of course we don’t have time in our education (or our lives) to work everything out from first principles. That’s not what I’m saying.

In the television series Doctor Who, the executive producer and award winning writer, Russell T. Davies said that they made the decision in 2005 to give back the character of the Doctor his ‘sonic screwdriver’. Decades earlier, a previous producer had taken the magical device away from the Doctor claiming that it made solving the problems in the stories all too easy. All the Doctor would have to do would be use the sonic screwdriver and escape. Russell T. Davies disagreed saying that we didn’t want the Doctor constantly being locked up and the story stalled while he tried to escape. He wanted the Doctor to be able to solve those simple problems quickly so we could all get on to having a more exciting story with bigger problems to solve than just a locked door.

Doctor Who never uses the sonic screwdriver to solve the main dilemma of the story. He never uses his Tardis to go back in time and make it easy for himself. He has to use his wits. He has to use his problem solving abilities. He has to use his creativity.

We all need to be able to do the same. We need to be taught the basics, how to hold a pen or brush, the rules of grammar and arithmetic, how to kick a ball or hold the violin.

We may be interested to know that Hitler came to power in 1933. But we need to know how Hitler came to power in 1933 to have something useful and important.

We might learn that E=mc^2 but we need to know how Einstein came to that conclusion to understand its meaning and significance.

Traditional education and training in most disciplines purports right and wrong answers as that’s the simplest way to test someone: ask them a question and mark them on whether the answer is right or wrong.

The problem with this, if it becomes the standard way of learning is that it programmes the mind that there is a right or wrong answer, that there is a set way of doing something and that getting the answer right is more important than how you got the answer right.

This is why I detest multiple choice tests (see my rant on that here) because it frames up the universe into right and wrong, when in fact most of the universe falls into a third category that is neither right or wrong, or both states exist at the same time depending on context. This means that a better answer to many questions may be ‘it depends’. When answering a multiple choice question we cannot say ‘it depends’ even though it so often does.

In most cases in life, there is no answer. There is no right answer, there is no wrong answer. When people think they have the answer and force it on someone else, they are often deluded, wrong or only have the so-called ‘right answer’ correct under certain circumstances.

On a breakfast television programme Good Morning in 1994, former Doctor Who actor Jon Pertwee was asked to pull out from a hat the winning answer to a question that viewers had sent their entries in to, in order to win a prize. The question was ‘who created the Daleks?’

A simple enough question, but what’s the answer? Jon Pertwee pulled an entry out of the hat. On it, a ten year old boy had written ‘Davros’. “Wrong!” said Pertwee and fished out another entry, that too said Davros, ‘wrong again’ he said. Nearly all the entries in the hat said Davros. Davros was of course the evil scientist who was revealed in the fictional world of the programme to have created the Daleks. But the answer the breakfast tv show was looking for was Terry Nation, the writer who in the real world created the Daleks in his 1963 script.

But even that’s not the definitive answer because what we recognise as a Dalek was designed by the BBC in-house designer, Raymond Cusick. Even that’s not the complete story as the actual props used on television were built for the BBC by a company called Shawcraft. There are also stories that it was comic actor Tony Hancock (who nation wrote for) who came up with the idea that Nation used.

If you want to annoy a Doctor Who fan ask them another simple question: how many actors have played the role of the Doctor? Again, the casual viewer might remember that the chap on telly at the moment is described as the 11th Doctor, therefore the answer is 11. But it isn’t. What about Peter Cushing, who played the part in two films? What about Richard Hundall who played the first Doctor in the 20th anniversary special? What about the many actors who have played the role onstage (including yours truly!) in official productions? What about the number of stunt doubles employed in the series? What about the alien impostors in various stories? There’s more than 11.

So if you want the ‘right’ answer, you have to qualify the question, then it becomes easier to answer. If you qualify the answer too much it becomes way to easy to answer and it becomes not a real-world question. Real, tough, pressing questions about our lives and our world are not pre-qualified and not laid out as multiple choice. We can’t use the sonic screwdriver or any other prescribed tool to solve them.

We don’t learn anything much by learning answers. It’s the same as the old parable, ‘if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for life’.

Let’s reword that: ‘If we give someone an answer, they can solve one question. If we teach them how to find answers, they can solve any question.’

Simply being told the world is round, the sky is blue and the law is the law is really just handing us empty dogma that is really no different to the worst dogmas of old. We need to know how we know the world is round, why the sky is blue and how and why we need to behave as we do.

Because if we learn how the universe works, instead of how an examiner works, if we learn how to think for ourselves, rather than become blind faith disciples of accepted wisdom, if we figure out how to figure out and think how to think,we might just find the answers that no-one else has ever answered before.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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9 comments on “Questions are better when there are no answers

  1. Excellent post.
    I rarely used to stretch my thought process and problem solving qualities…or for that matter my creative juices, such as they are. That was until I became a paramedic.

    Oddly, there is a strange expectation when you arrive at an emergency, ‘you’ will resolve the problem – because that is what “you have been trained to do”. But is it?

    If I had relied on my initial training I would not have grown intellectually; I would have been unable to have managed many complex environments or situations that were not provided for in the initial training. I only really recognised this as I became more astute at solving day-to-day challenges in my personal life such as DIY problems. I would never had attempted some of the stuff I have since if my brain had not been so challenged for almost twenty years by my own expectation that if I’ve been called to an emergency, it’s for a problem they want me to manage.

    I have now ended that career, but my interest in creativity, problem solving and innovation continues.

    And that’s just another reason why it was such a privilege!


  2. Edward de Bono, the man who coined ‘lateral thinking’ also created the term sur/petition meaning ‘beyond competition’; and argued paradoxically “that you cannot truly be competitive if you seek to be competitive”. This he postured is only ” a strategy for survival”. “Success requires going beyond competition to sur/petition.”
    To do so means thinking how to think and that inevitably means asking questions for which there are no answers. Thanks Ayd.


  3. Learning here for all Teaching Assistants (TA) and Learning Support Assistants (LSA) in schools whose role is not to help that the child, or children, you are working with get the right answer.
    Instead the role of an LSA or TA is to support and encourage them to find answers.

    A Teacher’s role must then be to support and encourage an LSA or TA to find answers too.


  4. “Be patient and sympathetic with the type of mind that cuts a poor figure in examinations. It may, in the long examination which life sets us, come out in the end in better shape that the glib and ready reproducer, its passions being deeper its purposes more worthy, its combining power less commonplace, and its total mental output consequently more important.” William James

    One of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite people – and before you say it, I am reproducing!

    BTW multiple choice questionnaires are used so often because we can run a quantitative analysis on the data. Otherwise we can only use a qualitative approach that has its limitations. But with multiple choice we can’t investigate the grey more interesting areas and we’re at the mercy of statistics. And we all know the problem with stats (e.g. stats tell us the average person has one breast and one testicle). So in your wonderful creative brain Ayd, I challenge you to come up with an alternative to stats. If you can do that you will make quintillions.


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