If we want individuals who can embrace “quality ignorance” and ask good questions we need a learning framework that supports this. The beauty of CBL is that it provides a scaffolding that celebrates the asking of questions and allows for the application of knowledge.

The Importance of “Quality Ignorance”

Mar 11, 2019

By Mark Nichols

In his Ted talk the Pursuit of Ignorance, the neuroscientist Stuart Firestein suggests that the general perception of science as a well-ordered search for finding facts to understand the world is not necessarily accurate. That much of science is akin to “bumbling around in a dark room, bumping into things, trying to figure out what shape this might be, what that might be” while searching for something that might, or might not be in the room. Firestein goes on to compare how science is approached (and feels like) in the classroom and lecture hall versus the lab. Simply put, the classroom is focused on acquiring and organizing facts while the lab is an exhilarating search for understanding.

After debunking a variety of views of the scientific process (putting a puzzle together, pealing an onion and exploring the part of an iceberg that is underwater), he comes up with the analogies of a magic well that never runs dry, or better yet the ripples in a pond. With each ripple our knowledge expands, but so does our ignorance. He clarifies that he is speaking about a “high-quality” ignorance that drives us to ask more and better questions, not one that stops thinking. Knowledge is not necessarily measured by what you know but by how good of questions you can ask based on your current knowledge. Quoting the great quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger, he makes the point that to learn new things we need to “abide by ignorance for an indefinite period” of time. He concludes with the argument that schooling can no longer be predicated on these incorrect perspectives of science and the sole pursuit of facts and information. Instead, education needs to be about using this knowledge to embrace our ignorance and drive us to ask the next set of questions.

Challenge Based Learning only works if questions and the questioning process is valued and adequate time is provided to ask the questions. The importance of questions is so significant that the emerging 4.0 model of the framework emphasizes their significance throughout the entire process and not just during the Investigation phase. The Engage phase moves from a high-level questioning process (What is important? To whom is it important?) to finally to a personalized questioning phase (why do we care? How does this impact us?) and then even more questions (what can we do about it?). The Investigation phase uses questions to learn about the challenge, guide our learning and lead to possible solution concepts. The Act phase raises more practical and focused questions (how are we going to do this? who are we doing it with? Etc.) and then to evaluation questions (what worked? What did not?, Etc). Finally, the ongoing focus on reflection allows the participants to ask more questions (how does this connect with prior knowledge? What can I do differently next time? How do I best learn? What do I need to learn next?). If Firestein is correct that science needs to be about asking good, ( and I think he is) and that the current schooling system inhibits this (and I think it does) — then do we have a learning framework for him. The goal of CBL is for learners to start with big ideas and use questioning to learn, while finding solutions (not the solution, but one of a multitude of solutions), raise more questions, implement solutions and create even more questions. And then reflect on it to determine the next questions.

An important concept connected to the ideas presented by Firestein is the differentiation between applied and general approaches to science and learning. The focus of applied science is to use the findings of science as a means to achieve a useful result. General science (or just science) is more akin to what Firestien is presenting — poking around a dark room to see what one finds. In the ideal world, both of these approaches have value as we need both wide open and a general search for understanding and a way to apply it to make the world better. Unfortunately, there appears to be an ever-increasing focus on the applied sciences. This bias goes beyond science as education increasingly values degrees that allow you to do something over those that are about seeking knowledge.

At first glance CBL seems to lean more towards an applied approach — after all, we are working to go from a challenge to an implemented solution. But in reality, it is designed to accommodate both general and applied approaches to learning. The engage and investigate phases are all about general research and asking as many questions as possible. The phase emphasizes exploring the big idea through essential questions to develop meaningful challenges. As this general research solidifies and unveils possible solutions, then the focus of the questions becomes much more applied.

If we want individuals who can embrace “quality ignorance” and ask good questions we need a learning framework that supports this. The beauty of CBL is that it provides a scaffolding that celebrates the asking of questions and allows for the application of knowledge.

Which in turn raises more questions:-)