The Mother of All Questions

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Ma’am, what in the world is Akash doing? What is the purpose of this activity? What is inside that skull of yours anyway? What would happen if that lizard came to sit on your table?

The ‘what’ questions are perhaps the easiest to find answers to, requiring a basic knowledge, not even much of understanding.  Lower Order Thinking Skills, you know, if you are technically inclined. You don’t really have to engage your mental gears at all to be able to respond. These are usually the inane questions, the answers to which the questioner already knows or can find out with minimum effort. They are generally used by children to express amazement, disgust, frustration, and least often, genuine curiosity.

But ‘How do you know what the purpose of this activity is’ is another level of questioning that needs some comprehension and turning of the wheels in the brain. ‘How do you know what is the purpose of your life’ is far more complex a query than the mere ‘what is the purpose of your life’. What is inside that skull of yours is a rhetorical question, the answer to which may vary from ‘a brain’, ‘loads of ideas’, ‘a monster in dormant mode’, ‘an inflated sense of self’, to ‘me’, ‘a psychopath’, ‘thoughts’, or ‘the universe’ depending on how the answerer thinks and whether he is in a contemplative mood, smart ass mood, wicked mood, depressed mood or simply bored, whereas “‘How’ do you know what is inside that skull of yours anyway?” would require deep contemplation, balancing of positive and negative forces, comprehension of the self, and images and feelings that you’d have to grapple with in order to admit they’re inside your skull. See the increasing complexity of the question stem? This is just from What to How. Even so, technically you are still in the LOTS (Lower Order Thinking Skills).

You see, the Howes are definitely much more of thinking people than the Watts in class. (Standing joke from some smart kids even though I never had Howes and Watts in my class, but rather had Mishras, Sharmas and Nairs among others.)

Of course, questions that begin with When and Where are no-brainers. I don’t think there is much skill – lower or higher – involved in answering those.

The question that is most dreadful to answer in class is the Why question. It requires investing the brain in the process of thinking, analysing, evaluating, and synthesising information and thought before an answer can be arrived at. These are the Higher Order Thinking Skills or HOTS, for short. (You’re expected to not only have the HOTS in class, but also to help develop them in the kids! Sacrilege and OMG!) And then, you have to be able to use language to express exactly what you mean to say without stumbling, stuttering or rambling. Oh yes, you have to be good if you are to respond to a Why question.

And the most confounding answer to a Why question is, of course, ‘Why not?’ The sages of yore knew that they would be stumped if someone came up with a difficult why question, so they, in their sagacity and wisdom, invented its sure-shot counter –  ‘Why not?’

Why is Akash doing what he is doing? Why not? Why are we doing this activity? Why not? Why is there a brain inside the skull? Why not? Why would that lizard ever think of coming down to sit on your table? Why not?

Notice that you cannot use this strategy with the other question stems like what, how, when and where without sounding crazy (What not? How not? When not? Where not?). However, a ‘why not’ sounds a lot more intelligent and profound and is therefore a safe option to use if you wish to sound intellectual, superior, artsy or smart.  It’s like one of those modern paintings – the artist makes an intriguing pattern of colours or shapes and the rest of the world endows it with profound or fantastical meaning which is unique to each person…and which the artist probably never intended. But then, that is good art; each viewer experiences it at the personal level irrespective of what the artist meant – ‘Oh! I had these weird muscular spams while doing that piece; though the results look deeply stimulating, don’t you think?’

Here is one from a babe’s mouth that had me resort to the age old wisdom of those ancient sages:

Why do we go to school?

Innumerable reasons pulled out from their parking spots in the recesses of my brain and rushed to my tongue, but it was difficult to articulate any for the four year old child. ‘It builds…’, ‘you learn…’, ‘it helps…’ – three false starts later, inspiration hit me, ‘Why not?!’

P. S: ‘Whys’ might be the most important questions the kids would ever ask you.

Your ‘why not’ will invariably lead them to answer the why themselves with a little help!


Rachana Misra, Educationist


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