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For analytically minded people this is a powerful effect. Framing the question properly causes the answer to fall out of the question. I think by verbalizing it, you are constructing a mental image of the problem. So in theory the effect is more powerful if the problem and answer can be visualized. Abstract questions probably can't be answered as well this way.

That's wonderful.

And, yeah, getting to the basics and trying to figure out how to ask something often leads to the answer.

In my younger days, I had a wonderful mentor who would not answer just any old question, but would be happy to provide additional explanation for any part of the documentation one did not understand. No answers unless you showed up at his door with a manual open to some relevant page (and there was no faking, I think he knew all the darn things by heart).

my current boss is definitely a talk-it-out sort of person. I consider a part of my job to be "the duck" sometimes. He may or may not also talk to inanimate objects, but I know he's extroverted which probably makes a difference. I won't, however, pretend to be Gingrich.

Figuring out how to explain the question often leads to the answer. I use it to solve software problems on occasion -- I'll grab a colleague and say, let me explain this problem to you. By the time I've explained it properly, I know how to tackle the solution.

Aside on jargon: In physics, when you know how to get the answer to a problem, it's "trivial". When you think you know how to go about solving the problem, but you haven't verified that it's going to work, it's "straightforward". When you have no idea how to solve the problem, it's "interesting". The goal of research is to make the interesting trivial.

That is brilliant, and I may have to use it... though hopefully my next hire won't be quite so prone to running to ask backup on every little problem as the current one is.

When I was a working mathematician, I found that every researcher understood the value of explaining the problem to the dog. (Cats won't do, they rarely pay attention. A dog will listen.)

Now I'm a schoolmaster, I have learned that the vast majority of student difficulties can be solved by either verbalising their difficulty or reading the problem out loud. One of my catchphrases is "when you do that silently, in your imagination, it's called THINKING". Indeed, one of my first tuition clients, before I went into teaching, improved two grades by (as she put it) imagining she was asking me the question whenever she got stuck.

"Tell me the first thing you don't understand" is another very useful question in this context.

I think it's a combination of getting it slowed down to the point that you can get a good look at it, engaging different parts of the brain, and (crucially for young students) making them actually read the damned question.

This is why I keep a portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in my office.

I'm honored that you found my question to be worthy of writing a response to and extremely pleased that the response took the form of a story - I love telling stories myself.

When I was in grad school I would often be the stuffed duck. People - other grad students - would drop by my office and start to explain their problems. Usually somewhere in mid-explanation they'd realize what was wrong and wander off.

That said, I don't disagree with the value of this but I don't think it's what I'm noodling around right this moment. To go back to my original example, I can frame the question as "How is it that I can recognize this problem is (equivalent to) a set-difference problem and my coworker didn't think of it that way?"

Perhaps it's because I'm an old fart with lots of experience, in which case I think the best I can do is teach my kids "get lots of experience". Perhaps it's because I had an old-style Ivy League education with lots of what seemed at the time to be worthless theoretical bits thrown in. I dunno. As I said, I'm sort of noodling around the question without any clear goal or answers.

For a while, I used a dinosaur hand puppet for this, and gave him Strong Bad's voice. The sheer goofiness helped with disinhibition and let me ask the question and work on the answer in that way.

I prefer the duck. "Why a duck?"

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