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FORGET THE ANSWER, WHAT’S THE QUESTION?

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Hooray for Young Scientists! Walking round the main hall at Dublin’s RDS this weekend I felt like a bubble in Lucozade, carried along by fizzing enthusiasm and creativity. Before this (first) visit I’d assumed it was an X-Factor for mathema-techno-gadget-brains, all very clever and off you go. But when my daughter and friends earned themselves a stall with their project, ‘What are the ideal learning conditions for primary school pupils?’ I was amazed to find I actually understood the title.

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The hall was full of such fascinating questions. There was ‘Could anyone be Sherlock Holmes?’ a project in which students staged a crime scene. They asked a group of untrained volunteers to identify the culprit and then a group that had been trained in police deductive methods. And while the answer was predictable – the trained students had a much higher success rate – that didn’t matter; the fun lay in the question. Another humdinger was ‘How strict should teachers be?’ Hard to measure, as strictness presumably takes many forms – but again, who cares? What a useful question to chew on. What about ‘How much make-up should you wear?’ Answer: it depends on the occasion but GO EASY is a pretty safe bet (and that’s from teenage girls). And the apparently bonkers ‘Do earthworms move more quickly if music is played?’ Yes, it turns out, and anything but bonkers when you consider the implications for soil fertilisation. Like a brilliant story, a perfect tune or Cookie Dough ice cream, such questions are obvious with hindsight but I’ve never thought to ask them.

One of my favourites was ‘How can we encourage pro-social behaviour? (apart from ‘pro-social’ which is one of those words that should avoid sunlight, like mole rats or Dad’s Speedos). The students came up with a brilliantly simple experiment. For a week, during lunch break, they silently picked up litter from the dining room in front of their peers. The next week they watched as other pupils, subconsciously influenced, cleared up after themselves and others. The following week there was even less. How’s that for subliminal advertising?

I came away inspired, sharpened and humbled by all this youthful brilliance, wondering if we don’t actually grow up, just out and down.

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‘Wisdom doesn’t automatically come with old age. Nothing does – except wrinkles.’

American columnist Abigail Van Buren


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