Ask Higher Order Questions

Friday, May 9, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Bloom's Taxonomy
If there is one thing I have learned thus far on my interchange it is this: ask higher order questions.

No matter the situation: ask higher order questions.

No matter the people you are speaking with: ask higher order questions.

Sometimes it will make people uncomfortable but it will always pay dividends. Elevating the conversation and helping people see the forest for the trees is – in my opinion – a key leadership competency; it's right up there with knowing when to burn your ships (See: The Fine Art of Burning Your Ships).

What is higher order thinking?

Higher order thinking is a concept from the field of education reform based on learning taxonomies. The concept centres around the idea that certain types of learning require more cognitive processing power than others but that this type of learning also has greater benefits. In Bloom's taxonomy for example, skills involving analysis, evaluation and synthesis (i.e. the creation of new knowledge, innovation) are thought to be higher order. A key defining element of higher order thinking is that the lessons learned in higher order thinking can be deployed in novel ways in different situations. In other words, it expands your tool set and helps you avoid the problem of only having a hammer and everything looking like a nail (a core challenge for many public servants).

What are higher order questions?

Higher order questions force people to do more than recall facts, terms and concepts. They require people to identify motives and causes, make inferences and find evidence to support their generalizations.

They push people to defend their opinions by turning their attention to the quality and validity of available information; and help people compile information together in a different way by encouraging them to combine elements in a novel way and propose alternatives (See: Innovation is Tricky, Literally). In the simplest of terms, higher order questions lead us to better analysis, more honest evaluation and the creation of new knowledge (innovation).

Who's asking higher order questions?

Lots of people.

I asked a higher order question when I wrote The Question that BluePrint2020 Should Have Asked but Didn't.

Susan Delacourt is asking higher order questions in her book Shopping for Votes (review forthcoming).

Former Clerk of the Privy Council Alex Himelfarb, it's asking higher order questions about the nature of taxation and it's role in society.

At the Institute on Governance (where I am currently on interchange) we ask higher order question(s) about who has power, who makes decisions, how other players make their voice heard and how account is rendered (because that's what governance is).

Higher order questions are everywhere.

Let's practice asking higher order questions together

But not today. Enjoy the weekend, and save those higher order questions for Monday.