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Ask the Duck
drwex asked a question about how one might teach the development of analytical thinking skills in others. This is not a comprehensive answer, but it shoots in that direction.

When I was a younger person, my first full-time adult-type job was designing automatic fire sprinkler systems. It was an eye-opening and educational experience, and even though the job basically sucked, I learned all kinds of crazy stuff in that job that I use daily in my present-day non-sucky job, so I can't complain.

One interesting lesson was learned at the hand of the Chief Superintendant, Bob. Bob was in charge of installing the systems that me and my group designed. People who put things in, I quickly learned, have a wealth of knowledge and experience about things that people who only design never gain. As a result, when I first started in that job, I wound up going and bugging Bob for answers on a regular basis.

This annoyed Bob. Bob liked to sit in his office and shoot the shit with his buddies on the topics of fishing or hunting. He did not like fielding questions from young designers. This was especially true because, in his opinion, many of the questions could be answered by me, without bothering him, if I would just think about it the right way. At one point he got fed up. When I came into his office and opened my mouth to start asking whatever question I had, he told me to stop.

Bob pointed into a corner of the office. "Over there," he said, "is a stuffed duck. I want you to ask that duck your question."

I looked at the duck. It was, in fact, stuffed, and very dead. Even if it had not been dead, it probably would not have been a good source of design information. I looked at Bob. Bob was dead serious. He was also my superior, and I wanted to keep my job.

I awkwardly went to stand next to the duck and bent my head, as if in prayer, to commune with this duck. "What," Bob demanded, "are you doing?"

"I'm asking my question of the duck," I said.

One of Bob's superintendants was in his office. He was grinning like a bastard around his toothpick. "Andy," Bob said, "I don't want you to pray to the duck. I want you to ASK THE DUCK YOUR QUESTION."

I licked my lips. "Out loud?" I said.

"Out loud," Bob said firmly.

I cleared my throat. "Duck," I began.

"Its name is Bob Junior," Bob's superintendant supplied. I shot him a dirty look.

"Duck," I continued, "I want to know, when you use a strap hanger, what keeps the sprinkler pipe from jumping out of the strap when the head discharges, causing the pipe to..."

In the middle of asking the duck my question, the answer hit me. The strap hanger is suspended from the structure above by a length of all-thread rod. If the pipe-fitter cuts the all-thread rod such that it butts up against the top of the pipe, it essentially will hold the pipe in the hanger and keep it from bucking.

I turned to look at Bob. Bob was nodding. "You know, don't you," he said.

"You run the all-thread rod to the top of the pipe," I said.

"That's right," said Bob. "Next time you have a question, I want you to come in here and ask the duck, not me. Ask it out loud. If you still don't know the answer, then you can ask me."

"Okay," I said, and got back to work.

In the months that followed, I had many questions. I followed Bob's directions and asked the duck my questions. I believe that 50% of the time, asking the duck produced the answer.

Why does this work? I am not sure. I think there is something about framing your question as a verbal inquiry that causes your brain to work on it differently. You turn the question around and see it from another angle -- the angle of the person answering the question. This, in turn, causes your own brain to put itself in the answerer's shoes -- and, because we are basically clever apes, we have the tools to come up with smart ideas all on our own.

Fast forward to my current job. I am no longer a young designer. I am now an officer in a medium-size engineering firm. I do less designing than managing these days. And I get asked a lot of questions.

A few months back, after being interrupted for the sixth time that day by a very smart young engineer who had a question for me, I chose not to answer. Instead, I took the young man down the hall from my office and into a huddle room. Hanging in the huddle room was a photograph of our company's founder shaking hands with a politician.

"This," I said, "is Newt Gingrich, 58th Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and he is generally considered a smart fellow, even by those who despise him." My young engineer looked up at Newt, wondering where on Earth this could possibly be going, just as I had done with Bob and the duck many years ago.

I get less questions these days. But I think my young engineers get better answers, because there is no thinking quite so well-understood as thinking you do for yourself, even if you get a little help from a duck, or a politician, even one I loathe.

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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.

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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?"

That's because we think by means of words

I am a software developer & had found out this fact before.

Someday I realized that when I get stuck fixing a bug and start to explain the confusing situation, the answer automatically becomes obvious while I am talking trying to explain the problem to a colleague. I was surprised by discovering this! I call it active reasoning.

Some years ago I had read a few books by Carlos Castaneda. In those books he says that his mentor, Don Juan, insists that we think, live and understand the world by talking to ourselves, that is, an inner dialog. Don Juan wants Castaneda to shut off his inner dialog in order to understand the world without any intermediate tool, that is, inner dialog. I had always tried to shut off my inner dialog to stop the world and see it as is - as Don Juan's teachings :-)

However, it appears that not only stopping the inner dialog won't help fixing bugs, but one should do just the opposite and say the problem out loud. Otherwise it becomes impossible to figure out the solution :-)

It would be more than great if someday I am able to figure the problem out just by thinking about it without using words: inactive reasoning.

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