When my son was about nine or ten years old he was sitting at the kitchen table doing his math homework. I noticed that he was spending an extraordinary amount of time on a single problem. Looking over his shoulder I saw that he was busy on his third piece of scratch paper. I asked him about it and he said he was “looking for the highest common denominator”. I informed him that there was no such thing; I then instructed him to reread the question. He balked and became defensive. I told him that in order to solve a problem, he must first understand the question. He insisted he knew what he was doing. Because he was so resistant, I finally had to overrule his arguments and (because I’m your Dad and I’m bigger than you), insist that he revisit the question. When he finally did, it took just a minute to solve the problem. It’s a kind of running joke now between us because, after all, if I hadn’t stopped him, he’d still be sitting at the kitchen table looking for the highest common denominator to this very day!
In keeping with my memory of this incident, a few years later I found an article in the newspaper congruent to the issue. It was about Kwai Chang Caine, a character played by David Carradine in the Warner Brothers television western “Kung Fu” back in the ’70’s. The article talks about “a line from the show” that wasn’t actually in the show:
“We seek, not to know the answers…but to understand the questions“.
If ever you find yourself grappling with a frustrating, vexing problem and your brain is “all tied up in knots” over it, I strongly suggest “revisiting” the question. It surely helps with homework; and it also helps in everyday life.