The power of asking questions – and getting the wrong answer

How long does it take to sail around the world? And why did the wrong answer to this question have a profound effect on human history? 

There is a reason to pose this question, and questions like it, right now. At the beginning of term, we launched our Reach lectures and already this new initiative has proven to enliven and animate study for our Year 9 to Sixth Form students. Our students learn to ask hard questions, distrust easy answers, and think for themselves. The lectures are led by our brilliant teachers from the Senior School, exploring their array of expertise and subject specialisms. These range from Maths in Music to Elon Musk’s brain machine interface technology to leadership in sport and life lessons from the ancient world. Although there is a wide range of topics available, the idea is always the same: intriguing questions, surprising answers, and higher-level creative thought. 

Fun, sparky, challenging, rewarding and memorable, the Reach lectures are a world of learning and enquiry beyond the confines of any curriculum. Each and every lecture celebrates learning for its own sake and explores the space between subjects and space far beyond them. Above all it encapsulates the joy and individuality at the heart of human intelligence. This is further exemplified by my weekly learning walk, where I can see, feel, and witness our teachers explore a subject in more depth, let a student discussion run, take on a challenging topic for the sheer fun of what it can teach us, they are naturally living the High School approach wheel. Intellectual character dispositions such as curiosity, risk taking, and independence happen here every day.

So – how long does it take to sail around the world? Well, this answer is fairly easy – it depends on your boat and the weather. The Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation in 1519 took three years. Just over five years ago, François Gabart, a single-handed sailor, set the record by completing it in a shade under 41 days – as verified by the World Sailing Speed Record Council.

The second question, why the wrong answer matters, is where it gets interesting. When Christopher Columbus set sail, neither he nor any of his sailors had any fears about falling off the edge of the world, because they, like more or less everyone in human history, knew that it was round (the reason why many modern people believe our ancestors thought it was flat is another interesting question of its own). However, Columbus was wildly optimistic about how far round it was.

The history of science is littered with glorious discoveries, but also inglorious error. One of the great pieces of scientific calculation, the measurement of the circumference of the Earth by Eratosthenes of Cyrene in around 240 BCE, was a lovely example of error and luck. Eratosthenes made two major errors in his calculations, but happily they cancelled each other out, and his answer was remarkably accurate: 39,375 km vs the modern measure of 40,076 km.

However, to err is human. One great early map-maker, Ptolemy, got his own sums wrong, or miscopied a figure, and he put the circumference of the world at less than 30,000 km. Columbus was in part emboldened by this number to think he could sail all the way around the world to China. If he hadn’t been armed with this naïve confidence he may not have set off – and the whole chain of discovery, exploration, colonialism, exploitation and more may have happened in a very different way. 

Another example is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. When it was built, it was undoubtedly intended to stand vertical. It took about 200 years to complete, but by the time the third floor was added, the poor foundations and loose subsoil had allowed it to sink on one side. Along with the unexpected failure of the foundations is the unexpected consequence of the tower becoming a popular tourist attraction, bringing enormous revenue to the town. It is therefore important to note that unintended consequences can sometimes be positive.

There is a whole history out there of the unintended consequences of various mistakes. As many know, the glue on Post-Its was designed to stick not unpeel. We try, we fail, and every time we learn. Sometimes we get lucky and succeed without meaning to. Fast, unreflective thinking works where events are repetitive and predictable, as is most of what we encounter daily. It doesn’t work so well, though, when problems are novel, complex or abstract.

So my message here is simple. We want all our students at Northampton High to practise their curiosity every day at school and in their wider lives. Never stop asking why and how: never stop wondering, always be willing to challenge the status quo with open-minded, deep questioning. Curiosity is a human instinct but like most instincts, it can be refined through observation and practice. For example think-aloud while reading a book, watching a Ted Talk, or even having a conversation. As long as you can ‘pause’ to ‘think out loud’, you can explain how and what and why you are thinking what you are thinking, questions you have, things that pique your interest – and most crucially, the courage to follow that curiosity wherever it takes you.

To that end, we want our Reach lectures and all the other stretch and challenge activities to open doors for our students into realms of curiosity that they can explore without knowing where they will lead. And above all, we want them to explore boldly, fearlessly and embrace mistakes. We always learn from them, and we never know where they might lead us – and lead the world.