A few days ago, I set a cricket question for my twitter followers. To be precise, I set a question for those among my followers who were interested in cricket, interested enough to try and answer the question.
I will come to the answer later. Before that I want to spend a little time on the question.
I set it that way for many reasons.
First, just Googling it should not work. This is important. Why?
I like to think of the process of answering questions as a voyage of discovery, a journey of learning. Today, the first port of call in almost any such journey is the internet. You can choose the particular type of vessel you want to use on the journey (Google, Dogpile, Mamma, Facebook, Twitter, Quora, WolframAlpha, Copernic, Bing, Mahalo, Phone-A-Friend, Ask-The-Audience or whatever else catches your fancy). [Incidentally, feel free to add any question-answering tools you use and wish to share with others, just comment below and I will summarise comments in a follow-up post as needed. Also incidentally, does Bing really (and recursively) stand for But It’s Not Google?]
The journey, the voyage, is more important than the vessel.
And the discovery, the learning, is more important than the journey. It’s the whole point of the journey.
Which brings me to the second point of any question: Answering the question should teach you something; at the very least, it should reinforce some prior learning. Let me give you an example.
Some years before finishing school, we were given an intriguing maths question to solve. We were told that there was one, and only one, ten-term arithmetical progression (or “AP”) of prime numbers between unity and 3000. And we were asked to find it. [Yes, I have written about this before, some years ago. But please humour me, I want to take you somewhere else this time].
I must have been 14 or so. And I was enthralled by the question. Not because I found the question itself interesting, but because I was really enjoying myself trying to figure out how to get to the answer. And why I would get to the answer.
How. And why. Not what.
[I won’t spoil it for the first-time reader, I’m not going to give you the answer here. If you want to know, then please ping me via twitter, details on sidebar here, or comment below or even “inbox me on facebook” (the way my youngest daughter’s generation describe emailing).]
The third point, as important as the first two, is that answering the question should be fun. Again, an example from my teens in Calcutta. One of my friends had heard about a competition, I think he said it was in Punch, where you were given a “traditional” trivia answer and asked to formulate a non-traditional question. The example given was: A: Dr Livingstone, I presume. Alternative Q: What is your full name, Dr Presume?. [If I remember right, the winning entry in that competition was: A: Crick. Alternative Q: What is the sound made by a Japanese camera?]
The process of answering a question should be a voyage of discovery, a journey during which you learn something, and one where you enjoy yourself in the process.
As a result of answering the question, you should be able to answer most, if not all, questions belonging to that class of question. You know that cliched saying “I may not know the answer to the question, but I know a man who does”? There’s some value, some truth, in what it implies. It’s probably better expressed in the saying “It is better to teach a man to fish than to give a man a fish”. Passing on learning is far more valuable than passing on a short-term, “single-use” answer.
Knowing how to get to an answer is often more important than knowing the answer. And knowing why is the foundation for remembering the how.
This principle colours the way I view much of education. There must have been a time when people used slide rules incessantly in classes involving numerate subjects. By the time I was at school, they were already passing out of favour. In similar vein, my generation had to carry our own “log table” and “trig table” books, but I think we were the last “batch” at school to engage so closely with logarithmic and trigonometric tables. The generation after me learnt to use scientific calculators in anger.
And the generations of today know their way around the web. Or should do. [Provided, of course, they have access to the web, something I regard as a fundamental right of the 21st century, given the incredibly positive impact it can make on education, health and welfare].
Learning by watching and copying has been the way of the world for aeons. Sometimes I’m surprised by the way that gets forgotten in some spheres of education. There’s too much focus on the answer, the “what”, and not enough on the process and the rationale, the how and why. If a student can answer a question correctly by surreptitiously peeking at someone else’s work, then it’s a poor question. If a student can answer a question correctly by simply engaging with Google and entering a “raw” search term, then it’s a poor question. If a student can answer a question correctly by simply looking up Wikipedia, then it’s a poor question.
Google and Wikipedia are tools. Like slide rules and log tables and scientific calculators. Or even abaci.
Knowing how to use the tool properly is important. If the tool is designed to provide enjoyment as well, even better. Concentrating on the answer provided by the tool is all quite wrong.
If you’ve read this far, then you’re probably someone who is sympathethic to my way of thinking. So humour me a little longer.
When I asked the unGoogleable question in Twitter, an old friend and colleague, Dominic Sayers, tweeted the following:
So now I have to come up with another unGoogleable cricket question.
On a cricket scorecard, an asterisk is used to denote the captain, and a “dagger” to denote the wicketkeeper. Since the dawn of Test cricket, with thousands of matches played, there have only been 26 “asterisk-daggers”, players who, simultaneously, kept wicket and captained the team.
26. Over thousands of Tests.
During this time, there have only been five instances where a Test has involved a “double asterisk-dagger“, where a wicketkeeper-captain has faced a wicketkeeper-captain.
These instances involved only five specific asterisk-daggers: one three times, three twice, and one just once. Name the wicketkeeper-captain who has faced a wicketkeeper-captain in a Test match just once and once only in his career.