Saturday, March 29, 2014

Why Ask Questions? To Change the World

During spring break I enjoyed one of those wonderful father-daughter experiences. For six days we travelled in the Northeast to look at colleges. It wasn't about further bonding. Instead, I revelled in suddenly realizing what a self-aware young woman she had become. Even though I've been watching carefully--and I like to believe I'm an engaged parent-- the transformation felt sudden. I really sensed it when she talked about how a college might provide what she craves and needs as a learner. Naturally, I found myself wondering what experiences had fostered this growth. To some extent it results from her nature, and I'm grateful to her teachers who have nurtured it. All good schools will claim, quite earnestly, that they want their students to be reflective. However, that doesn't seem to be an innate part of young people's make-up, at least not in overt ways they want us to know about. So I also found myself doubting whether schools do enough to prompt the desired, very necessary reflection.
I'm sure that some of this pondering has gained momentum because I'm reading Warren Berger's excellent A More Beautiful Question. In it Berger points out the many reasons we may be reluctant to ask questions and don't ask meaningful questions when we do pose any. As you likely imagine, schools receive quite a bit of blame. I have to say, deservedly so. Without summarizing his points, I'll simply give my very general reasons since they have been percolating in my mind for a long time. In a way they come down to what some of our practices suggest we value. Assessment practices usually come down to being able to provide a "right" answer to a teacher-generated query. This is true whether in class on a daily basis or on a test. There are, of course, wonderful exceptions...but they remain just that--exceptions. That truism ossifies in an era of standardization. One also fairly can ask, when students are posing questions, if they are learning about what makes for good questions and how many are strictly about material rather than their learning. I believe we can better balance the two.
Towards that end, I'm trying an experiment in the seventh grade writing classes I'm currently teaching. I'm embedding asking questions into the work. For example, I am not handing the students a rubric for their essay. Instead, as we work on certain topics, they are coming up with questions that then become part of the rubric, with the students deciding which ones to include. For example, we've been working on word choice, especially vivid verbs. For a possible rubric question, one student wrote, "Do my words activate specific images in a reader's mind?" In the first round of peer review, students had to write down nothing but questions in response to what they heard from the author. Each question had to begin with one of three terms: why, how might you, or what if.
The students find this process quite challenging, mainly because it' so new for them. It requires patience on my part, and I'm struggling a bit with how much to show them up front and how much to let them figure out. Somewhere is the sweet spot, and we will find it. I truly believe taking this approach should help them in the long run. I've always considered asking great questions more important than spouting facts. Now, with pure knowledge growing so easy to access, that is even truer. It's true for curation, and it's true for creativity. It's also true for contribution in the grandest sense. As Berger quotes a professor in his book, "We create the world we live in through the questions we ask." No one is going to change the world for the better without asking the right questions.

1 comment:

Grant Lichtman said...

Of course I love the part about asking questions (that is no surprise) but also that you shared a hint of your journey with your daughter. Summer after my son's sophomore year we spent 12 days driving from Baltimore-Indiana visiting colleges. Two of the best weeks of my life!

I also enjoy your "struggle" with the English class. might you get NAIS to suggest that "best practice" is for ALL HOS to teach a class?? hard is it for all of us to switch from Socratic mode to "you ask the questions" mode. If you ever need help; call Jill Gough; she is the master at showing teachers how to do this in the classroom.