The Most Powerful Technology of All: Questions

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Many will see Sugata Mitra's wish -- to build a "School in the Clouds" -- as a TED-style, uber futuristic, and potentially impractical, solution for a very real problem across the globe. But the innovation at the very heart of his wish, truth be told, is not about computers or Skype or even Google. The most critical technology is a really good question.

I think a lot about the power of questions, because I'm a journalist. Well, that, and a nosy person. I'm the kind of person that you sit down next to at a dinner party and ten minutes later you realize that I've pulled your life story right out of you. In many ways, it's not a conscious process, even for me. One minute I'm learning someone's name and the next I'm asking them, "And then what happened?!" as they tell me about the time that they hiked over the glacial snow of Alaska to see where the ice ended and the water began, not realizing they were four weeks pregnant at the time and quickly catching hypothermia. (This happened yesterday.)

Sugata's wish is built around the power of a really big, mind-stretching question -- not the personal probing that I'm most known to do, but the how-does-the-world-work variety. Like these: How do my eyes know to cry when I'm sad? How does a plane fly? What happens to my brain when I sleep? Do cats have feelings?

Too often, our modern lives are dominated by mundane tasks -- the daily hum drum of our to do lists and our highly bureaucratized lives. With all those emails to reply to and all those 1099s to track down, it's easy to totally lose track of our native wonder, those questions that naturally bubble up from our observations of the world and our curiosity about it.

So while Sugata's wish is about children, in some ways, I feel like it's potentially going to change adults' lives even more. For us to be involved, for example, in the Self-organized Learning Environments (SOLEs) that Sugata has designed, will, indeed, light up children's minds, set them free to wander on the Internet, give them new muscles for collaboration and systematic inquiry.

But it will also, no doubt, reawaken adults' innate quest to understand the biggest, most compelling things about how the world works. It's an invitation to return to wonder.

We spend too much of our lives in a stress state, unlikely to notice how mystifying, puzzling, and intriguing so many things around us really are. When we feel under threat of deadline or drowning-by-inbox, it's almost physiologically impossible to notice, much less ask big questions about what we observe. We become myopic. Our lives are narrowed down to what we know. It's a profound loss -- this narrowing.

I hope that Sugata's wish gives children all over the world, particularly in the poorest regions, a chance to ask their big questions, go on delightful digital journeys, and feel the power of their own observations and curiosity. But I also hope it teaches us adults -- particularly those of the privileged Western variety, a thing or two. We need the youngest netizens to remind us that the wisest approach to life is one that ends in a question mark.

Courtney E. Martin is an author, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, Editor Emeritus at, Founding Director of the Solutions Journalism Network, and a strategist for the TED Prize. Read more about her work at

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