Asking Trivial, Hard, Impossible & Nonsense Questions

The THINQ approach encompasses 4 question categories: Trivial, Hard, Impossible, and Nonsense. When asking participants to pose questions, each one of these categories has a particular role to play in their skill improvement. However, participants often omit questions that belong to some of these categories for various reasons, such as:

  • Trivial: Fear of being characterized as “ignorant” or “stupid,” or being laughed at.
  • Hard: Fear of being characterized as “nerd” and “know-it-all.”
  • Impossible: Thinking it is pointless to ask a question that cannot be answered. Fear of being characterized as “smarty-pants” (or worse).
  • Nonsense: Might seem inappropriate. Fear of being negatively characterized, or, that the respondent might be offended.

This post presents the main characteristics and leverages of each question category, along with some examples of questions that fit within it. At the end of this post, you can find an Annex with indicative prompts that can be used to elicit student questions for each category. In the previous post, “sand” was suggested as a “training Topic” for the first time that THINQ is introduced.

(a) Trivial:

Simple to answer factual questions (aka “basic information questions”) – even questions that one may regard as “stupid.” The answer to these questions can easily be found in books or the Internet. The generation and formulation of such questions practice the skill of perceiving what one knows (and what does not) about a topic.

What is sand used for?

Sand-related examples

  • What is sand made of?
  • What is sand used for?
  • Where does beach sand come from?
  • Is sand a renewable resource?

Other examples

  • How many eyes does a bee have?
  • What is the largest planet in our solar system?
  • How long can a person survive without water?

Sometimes, when a seemingly simple question is answered by an expert it may yield responses that are unexpected, or contradictory to common belief. Also, there are several commonly known “facts” (even taught at school) that have been proven wrong.

In the 1980’s some teachers in the United States established September 28 as the “the Ask a Stupid Question Day” to encourage children to open up and share their curiosity with the class, without the fear of being ridiculed.

(b) Hard:

More sophisticated questions (aka “wonderment questions”) which are answerable, but require a certain level of familiarization or expertise on the subject. For example: personal involvement and experience are needed; they involve complex concepts, higher-order thinking, inferences, evaluation of a claim, or imagination; there are multiple contradicting answers; they are of subjective nature. The generation and formulation of such questions practices critical and divergent thinking.

“What motivates you to do your work?”

Sand-related examples

  • What is the role of sand to an ecosystem?
  • Can we use any recycled materials as viable alternatives to replace sand in the industry?
  • Could we import sand from other planets?
  • Could we turn desert sand to beach sand?
  • Is there any relation between sand mining in a river and river water availability?
  • Is there life on a single grain of sand?
  • What would happen if there was no sand on earth?

Other examples

  • Which may be the consequences of the pandemic on the economy?
  • Why does the shower curtain move toward the water?
  • What would happen if everyone on earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?
  • How good is the evidence about successfully colonizing Mars?
  • Which renewable energy source is best after taking everything into consideration?
  • What motivates you to do your work?
  • What criteria are relevant and important to help me decide which career I should follow?

(c) Impossible:

Relevant questions that cannot be answered (at all, or with a certain degree of certainty), either due to a gap in the current state of knowledge, or because a definitive answer is not feasible. This category also includes philosophical and religious questions. The generation and formulation of such questions practices deep thinking.

“Why does time seem to flow only in one direction?”

Sand-related examples

  • How many grains of sand are on earth?
  • When sand first appeared on earth?
  • When do many grains of sand become a pile of sand?
  • How many grains of sand would it take to fill the universe?

Other examples

  • How do we know what is real?
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Where did we come from?
  • Why does time seem to flow only in one direction?
  • If the Universe was born at the Big Bang, what existed before then?
  • Is there life on other planets?
  • If you restored a ship by replacing each of its wooden parts, would it remain the same ship?
  • If you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?

These questions can provide an opportunity for participants to reflect on what they believe is impossible and why. Is this based on their own beliefs, or somebody influenced them? While formulating such questions, participants practice the skill of consolidating what they know and what they do not about the topic.

Most scientific domains including mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry and economics, utilize various forms of “impossible” to answer questions, including ambiguity and paradox, in order to form new questions, challenge established theories and find better ways to explain the chaotic nature of our universe. One of the most famous examples that even managed to infiltrate the realms of popular culture is a thought experiment of the Nobel prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrodinger involving a cat which is considered both dead and alive at the same time, in a box with a vial of poison which might or not be broken based on an unpredictable radioactive substance event.

Six impossible things before breakfast
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), by Lewis Carrol

(d) Nonsense:

Strange, crazy, pointless, and humorous questions. Their goal can address: exploring unlikely situations, acting as thought experiments, testing the boundaries between the logical and the absurd, or just evoking laughter. The generation and formulation of such questions practices creative thinking.

“From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?”

Sand-related examples

  • What can you do with a cup of sand?
  • Can we run out of sand?
  • Which are more dangerous, sharks or sandcastles?
  • How much sand can you eat without having any problem?
  • What would happen if sand was blue?
  • Can sand sing?

Other examples

“Can sand sing?”

Singing Sand Dunes Explained

On the importance of Nonsense
Several great ideas in the history of mankind when first introduced were hailed by the “experts” as nonsensical or crazy:
After Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, he was harshly attacked and ridiculed.
The medical establishment mocked Pasteur for his theory that liquids were being contaminated with invisible microbes floating in the air.
When Guglielmo Marconi wrote to the Italian Ministry of Post and Telegraphs about the wireless transmission of sound, the minister noted in his letter that he should be committed to Rome’s mental asylum.
Doctor Ignaz Semmelweis at the maternity clinic of the Vienna General Hospital came up with a simple and effective solution for lowering mortality rates – doctors washing their hands with a chlorinated solution. Although the rate was reduced to below 1%, his ideas were rejected by the medical community. He lost his job and was later committed to an asylum where he died alone.

On the importance of Humor & Fun
There is considerable scientific evidence supporting the fact that when people are in a good mood they are more open-minded and tend to think in a more divergent way (Flowers, 2001). Also humor can promote creative thinking, while a supportive atmosphere provides freedom and security in exploratory thinking (Feldhusen, and Treffinger, 1980).

Annex: Indicative prompts for eliciting student questions

Regarding the 4 THINQ categories, some indicative prompts include:

Trivial Questions

Is there something (about the topic) you would like to know?
Is there something you don’t understand?
Is there something you are curious about or that you find intriguing?
What related information you might find in Wikipedia or a textbook?
Hard Questions

Is there something that we cannot perceive or understand?
What is the relevance between …?
Which would be the implications of ….?
How can we do / achieve something ….?
Can we do something in a way we never considered before?
Are there alterative conflicting viewpoints?
Is there a fact that many / few people believe which could be wrong (or the opposite)?
Is there a problem for which we need a solution?
What are the strengths/advantages or weaknesses/disadvantages of … ?
How does this connect to other subjects/areas of your life?
If you were a researcher in this topic, what would your research be about?
Impossible questions

Which is the current limit of our knowledge?
Is there something that we cannot find out, but it would be great if we could?
What if something that we take for granted was not?
Can you think of a paradox?
Can you think of a philosophical question?
Is there something that we cannot count, measure or strictly define? 
Find a question that only the creator of the universe could answer.
Nonsense questions

Can you think of a funny question?
Think of a strange or unlikely situation.
Think of an unusual combination or viewpoint.
What would be a question that a 3 year old might ask?
Paraphrase a question from the other categories to make it silly or absurd.
Ask a question that people would ask for a totally different topic.
Think of a question that sounds deep and serious but actually it is not.
Make a question in rhyme.
Generate a question that no one would ever make.
Generate a question that does not include the letter …. / includes the word … / has … words.

Bonus: 5 types of knowledge

In addition to the above, you can introduce to participants the 5 types of knowledge (or ignorance) that one may have about any topic and ask them to come up with questions that cover all of them. The 5 types are:

  1. Things I know.
  2. Things I know that I don’t know but I can find out.
  3. Things I know that I don’t know but I cannot find out.
  4. Things I think I know but I really don’t.
  5. Things I don’t know that I don’t know.

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Feldhusen, J. F., and Treffinger, D. J. (1980). Creative thinking and problem solving in gifted education. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Flowers, J. 2001. The value of humor in technology education. The Technology Teacher, 50(8), 10-13.

Dimitris is a Principal Researcher at the Institute of Computer Science of the Foundation for Research and Technology - Hellas (FORTH). He specializes in Human-Computer Interaction and also holds a Certificate of Competency for the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). Since 2014, he develops and delivers workshops and events that introduce the concepts and practice of design, creativity and creative thinking to children, parents, teachers and the general public. Up to now, he has run more than 55 workshops in 5 countries with a total of about 3500 participants.

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