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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

Opening Assembly Remarks: How Questions Can Change the World

Did you know that the average four-year-old asks 73 questions each day?

My son recently turned five, and that statistic frankly seems a little low to me. He wants to know everything RIGHT NOW: Where does the sun go at night? Why are they called corn dogs if they aren’t made from dogs? Why can’t humans fly? Why do baby teeth fall out? Why don’t cats like leashes? Why do lightsabers come in different colors? Why don’t whales sink when they sleep? Why are school buses yellow? Why can’t I press all the buttons on the elevator? And that’s just yesterday.

You probably went through a similar stage, asking “Why? Why? Why?” until you exhausted the adults around you. At some point, most of us stop asking 72 questions a day. But is that a good thing? Or could we learn something from preschoolers?

It might please you to learn that students weren’t the only ones who had a summer reading assignment. Every teacher at Rivers read a book called A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger.

Berger is a journalist, which means he has the opportunity to interview lots of fascinating people. Over the years, he began to notice something about innovators—those people who blaze new trails, create new products, solve difficult problems, and introduce new ideas to the world.

Innovators ask questions. Innovators ask good questions. In fact, innovators ask beautiful questions.

Beautiful questions are thoughtful and ambitious—the kind of questions that can generate new ideas and new ways of thinking. These questions can bring change to the world.

For example, Berger shared the story of a three-year-old who asked a question that shifted the photography industry.

The child was named Jennifer Land. Her dad, Edwin Land was a brilliant inventor. One winter day in 1943, she asked a question that prompted his most famous invention.

Land was on vacation with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He had taken some photographs of his young daughter Jennifer, using his favorite camera. Of course, in those days, film had to be taken to a darkroom or a processing lab for development; Land knew this to be a given at the time, as did any adult. But young Jennifer had a different take. She wanted to know, and so asked her father, why they couldn’t see the picture he had just taken without having to wait.

Land found he had no good answer for her. And he took this as a challenge, or as he described it, a “puzzle she had set for me.”

“Stimulated by the dangerously invigorating plateau air,” Land recalled in a speech years later, “I thought, ‘Why not? Why not design a picture that can be developed right away?’”

It took Land five more years to do it but eventually he answered his daughter’s question—in the form of the Polaroid Instant camera.

Preschoolers and world-changing innovators have a lot in common. They are really observant, and they are really curious. Berger shared three types of questions that ANYONE can use to become a little more innovative.

Ask “Why?” Why do we do what we do? Why couldn’t we do it another way?

Ask “What if?” What if we changed this or that? What if we tried this or that? What if we got really creative? What would that look like?

Ask “How?” How can we turn our dreams and visions into realities? What are the practical steps we need to take?

Why? What if? How? This is a powerful and practical trio of questions.

Imagine for a moment that you are struggling with a writing assignment. What if you step back and ask, “Why is this challenging for me? What if I tried a new strategy? How can I get the support I need to figure this out?”

Imagine for a moment that you notice a problem in your community—perhaps even the Rivers community. What if you step back and ask, “Why does so much recycling end up in the trash? What if we tried X or Y, this or that? How can we enlist others to participate?”

Yesterday, we explored those core values that you want to embrace this year. You chose words such as responsibility, empathy, equality, respect, and integrity. These values motivate us to ask important questions about the choices we make and our role in shaping our community and our world. Each of you has the capacity to make the world a better place right now.

This summer, I read about an all-girls engineering team from San Fernando High School in California who were motivated by a powerful “Why?” They were contemplating the issue of homelessness, and they wondered, “Why aren’t there more shelter options for people who do not have homes?” It’s a big, beautiful question that reflects values such as empathy, compassion, and justice.

That led them to ask, “What if?” What if we created solar-powered tents with LED light strips—big enough to sleep in and yet small enough to stuff into a backpack for easy transport?

And then came the “How?” How do we make one? After drawing up multiple plans, the girls coded, sewed, soldered, and used a 3D printer to create their prototype. It wasn’t easy. These students, to quote a Mashable article on their efforts, “had never done any hands-on engineering work before, but with the help of YouTube, Google, and trial-and-error, they got it done.”

Now this team is working on the next level of “how”: how to patent their invention and distribute it to those who need it.

Let’s hear from one of the students in her own words:

Did you notice how questions were at the heart of this amazing project? At Rivers, we love questions. We want to hear your questions, from the most practical “How” questions such as “How do I open my locker?” and “How do I take better notes?” to the bold, beautiful “Why” questions that may set you on a course of adventure and discovery. We want you to get excited about questions and use them to write, build, create art, propose ideas, and design solutions to problems.

Ask questions that stump your teachers—we LOVE that—and then search for answers together. Pay attention to what piques your curiosity and lights a spark in your mind, and then follow where those questions lead you. As Warren Berger writes, “We're all hungry today for better answers. But first, we must learn to ask the right questions.” That’s an awesome challenge, and I know we can all rise to meet it.

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