Monday, November 11, 2013

Questions and Understanding

     Yesterday my wife and I hosted a book club at our house. We all had read Julianne McCullough's novel The Narrow Gate ( and we were fortunate enough to have Juli facilitate the discussion for us.The group also was interesting because it included several writers and some avid readers who do not write. At one point, one of the latter asked, "Why are writers so drawn to writing?" I believe it was Juli who first said, echoed by others, that she writes to understand the world. Some else mentioned having an "insatiable curiosity."
     While I don't consider myself a writer in the category of these other folks, that idea certainly holds true for me when I blog. I find myself beginning with a singular thought and then figuring it all out as I go along, trying to connect the bits flying around my mind. I don't outline, do much revising or even editing (which I sometimes regret later). The quality is not always what I want. But I know this: the desire to maintain the blog and the process itself has become a major way of both stoking my curiosity and prompting reflection.
     An insatiable curiosity that prompts one to take action in order to understand the world--isn't that really what schools mean when they talk about life-long learning? Yet so many of our practices stress reaching conclusions or giving right answers. Despite talk about the value of the process, we still assess the product more than anything else. We want students to reflect, but I'm not sure we help them learn how, which is different than teaching them how. Several years ago, I used to assign my students what I labelled metacognitive blurbs. I asked them to write not about their conclusions, but the thinking that led to their current understanding. Abstract and messy stuff, and they needed language to jump start the process. But it proved fruitful, as later work had more depth. Most of the language I gave them involved questions.
     Along with the book club, last week's Independent Schools Association of the Southwest heads meetings had spurred my recalling these papers and the larger issue. ISAS director Rhonda Durham and her team always provide a great series of events for us. This time there was common theme of questioning--from Grant Lichtman asking us to create "What if..." questions to Cathy Trower on how questions can enhance board meetings to Hal Gregerson on the importance of asking great questions. In fact during Gregerson's session I tweeted, "What if schools graded students on quality of their questions rather than expected answers?" 
     I suspect I'm on to something that resonates with thoughtful educators, as this Tweet was favorited and retweeted more than any other I've ever sent. And lately I'm becoming more and more convinced the ability to ask meaningful questions may be the most important intellectual skill we can help students develop. Similarly, we have to learn to ask better questions. And all of us must grapple with the answers. Followed by more questions. Only then can any of us keep on better understanding the world.