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Want to spark creativity and innovation? Start with a question.

Young children ask questions. Lots of them! They are brimming with curiosity and have a burning desire to question everything in the world around them. Sir Ken Robinson has observed that students’ natural inclination to question declines the longer they are in school, along with their self-perception as creative individuals. If our goal as educators is to cultivate curiosity and innovation in our students, how can we keep alive their drive to question the world around them throughout their school-age years?

“Inquiry precedes assertion” has long been a mantra of our school, coined by a chairperson of our Board of Trustees many years ago. Only recently did I come to fully appreciate the eloquence of this statement when I read Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Mr. Berger traced the origins of creative ideas and successful companies back to the questions at the heart of their inception. He asserts (after asking a lot of great questions) that asking questions is essential to innovation.

One of my favorite stories from A More Beautiful Question was about Tim Westergren. Mr. Westergren was the keyboardist for the rock group Yellowwood Junction, a composer, and a music producer for more than 20 years. Along the way, he observed a Catch-22 in the music industry─musicians “couldn’t build a sizable following unless they were played on the radio, and they couldn’t get played on the radio unless they had a sizable following.” This prompted the beautiful question: “Why can’t good musicians find the audience they deserve?” Even if you don’t know who Tim Westergren is, this story should be starting to sound familiar. He connected with a lot of musicians and technologists to develop what we know of today as Pandora Radio.

At the heart of Pandora Radio is the Music Genome Project, an algorithm that categorizes music according to 5 “sub-genomes” along approximately 450 specific “genes” or character traits. So, when you create a station on Pandora using one of your favorite artists, that station will feature other artists whose music displays similar characteristics. You can further refine choices by accepting or rejecting the suggestions, all the while helping to answer Mr. Westergren’s original question, “Why can’t good musicians find the audience they deserve?”

I had the opportunity to meet and hear from Nolan Gasser at TEDxSonomaCounty 2015. Dr. Gasser is one of the primary architects of the Music Genome Project and helped to refine Mr. Westergren’s idea. An accomplished classically trained musician and composer, he entertained the audience with “Liber Tango” by Astor Piazzolla and explored the questions of “How might we empower our musical taste for the betterment of our lives?” and “Is being musical part of what it means to be human?” One can see firsthand that Dr. Gasser's passion for these questions have defined his life.

I recently participated in a faculty task force charged with exploring new schedule ideas for our school. Rather than launching into possible solutions to a yet-to-be-determined problem, we started the meeting by asking questions related to our experiences with our schedule. We put up large posters and asked questions on Post-It notes that started with “How might we…?” and “Why...?” and “What if…?”

This approach engendered some initial skepticism, yet it was remarkable how much out of the box thinking was inspired by devoting 45-minutes to a “question storming” session. We proposed no solutions and we made no assertions. We simply questioned. At the end of the session, the entire team agreed we had more fully examined the issues with our current circumstances and better articulated our aspirations than if we had presupposed the answers.

Try this with a group of students, teachers, or employees during your next class or meeting. See where you end up. My hope is that you breathe life into the desire to ask beautiful questions, ones that fuel a drive to take action, solve problems, and make our world a more beautiful place.

Sonoma Country Day School

4400 Day School Place
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
phone: 707.284.3200
fax: 707.284.3254
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The premier, fully accredited, independent TK-8 college preparatory school in Sonoma County. Located in northern Santa Rosa and proud home of The Jackson Theater, SCDS offers a challenging academic program rich in fine and performing arts, music, world languages, and social and emotional learning. For more than thirty years SCDS has been the school that brings learning to life.