A democracy relies on an electorate of critical thinkers. Yet formal education, which is driven by test taking, is increasingly failing to require students to ask the kind of questions that lead to informed decisions.

More than a decade ago cognitive scientists John D. Bransford and Daniel L. Schwartz, both then at Vanderbilt University, found that what distinguished young adults from children was not the ability to retain facts or apply prior knowledge to a new situation but a quality they called “preparation for future learning.” The researchers asked fifth graders and college students to create a recovery plan to protect bald eagles from extinction. Shockingly, the two groups came up with plans of similar quality (although the college students had better spelling skills). From the standpoint of a traditional educator, this outcome indicated that schooling had failed to help students think about ecosystems and extinction, major scientific ideas.

The researchers decided to delve deeper, however. They asked both groups to generate questions about important issues needed to create recovery plans. On this task, they found large differences. College students focused on critical issues of interdependence between eagles and their habitats (“What type of eco-system supports eagles?” and “What different kinds of specialists are needed for different recovery areas?”). Fifth graders tended to focus on features of individual eagles (“How big are they?” and “What do they eat?”). The college students had cultivated the ability to ask questions, the cornerstone of critical thinking. They had learned how to learn.

Museums and other institutions of informal learning may be better suited to teach this skill than elementary and secondary schools. At the Exploratorium in San Francisco, we recently studied how learning to ask good questions can affect the quality of people's scientific inquiry. We found that when we taught participants to ask “What if?” and “How can?” questions that nobody present would know the answer to and that would spark exploration, they engaged in better inquiry at the next exhibit—asking more questions, performing more experiments and making better interpretations of their results. Specifically, their questions became more comprehensive at the new exhibit. Rather than merely asking about something they wanted to try (“What happens when you block out a magnet?”), they tended to include both cause and effect in their question (“What if we pull this one magnet out and see if the other ones move by the same amount?”). Asking juicy questions appears to be a transferable skill for deepening collaborative inquiry into the science content found in exhibits.

This type of learning is not confined to museums or institutional settings. One of the best examples is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, in which the eponymous host expertly shreds political, commercial and scientific-sounding claims in the press by using numbers, logic and old video. The Maker Faire, which conducts techie do-it-yourself projects, has reintroduced the idea that our learning is richer for our mistakes: D.I.Y. experimentalists get stuck, reframe the question and figure things out.

Informal learning environments tolerate failure better than schools. Perhaps many teachers have too little time to allow students to form and pursue their own questions and too much ground to cover in the curriculum and for standardized tests. But people must acquire this skill somewhere. Our society depends on them being able to make critical decisions, about their own medical treatment, say, or what we must do about global energy needs and demands. For that, we have a robust informal learning system that eschews grades, takes all comers, and is available even on holidays and weekends.