As I have been immersed in school for the past two weeks, I have been constantly asking myself: How can I use this to help students learn to be independent learners and thinkers?
There are also a significant number of students that are frozen with indecision when the process isn’t clearly given to them. I won’t name names, but one of my favorite students of all time was just like that. She was brilliant, kind, energetic, and unique. Despite all of that, she would hit a road block and just wouldn’t try to move without a hard nudge.
If our best and brightest struggle with this, what are we to do? How can we start a flame of inquiry and problem solving in our most precious resource?
I’d like to propose a possible solution (that I can’t claim as my own). What if we stop telling students everything? What if we let them discover? What if we let them ask questions and then let them answer them? What if classrooms allowed questions again that came from the student and didn’t have A, B, C, and D attached?
Warren Berger (2014) points out that “in some cases (educators don’t) even tolerate questions” (p. 46). Berger also quotes a woman named Joi Ito who explains “You don’t learn unless you question” (Berger, 2014, 24). Students come to us passionate learners out of the gate, and we squash it out of them. Bransford (2000) mentions this when he talks about knowing shifting from the process of memorizing facts to being more about exploration (p. 5).
How can we fan the flame? Berger (2014) introduces his readers to the “Why/What if/How sequence” (p. 32). Essentially, he says that we should follow a train of thought that begins with why (like we did as small children). Next we should think about what would happen if we did different things in response to the why.
He follows it by saying we should then pick the best what if question and figure out how to do it. If that one doesn’t work, try another one. How could this fan the flame for children?
Why do students stop asking questions other than what should I do next? They are conditioned to do that by the way the educational system is currently set up. The money quote from Berger (2014) is: “The imperative to maintain order and ‘just get through the lesson’ can be at odds with allowing kids to question” (p. 57).
What if we decided that students needed to know how to ask probing questions and answer those probing questions? If we truly pursued this as a society, what would the result be? Some like Deborah Meier thinks that this is exactly what should happen but forces keep stopping it (Berger, 2014, p. 57). What if that changed?
How could we fan this flame of inquiry and discovery? The logical first step seems to be simple. Let students ask questions, and then give them the tools to find the answers. Stop “spoon feeding” information, and foster a desire to find something out for the sake of knowing it. Don’t stop there, though. Show them how to find the answer on their own.
Bransford (2000) explains that students need to use metacognition as they face a problem. That fits neatly with Berger (2014) and his ideas about questioning.
Berger (2014) goes on to explain that just asking questions is insufficient. Students must “learn how to analyze their own questions and zero in on ones they would like to pursue further” (p. 61). Once students get into the mindset of asking questions (and finding them), they need to also become aware of which questions are most worth their effort.
All of this is a long process. We first must have a burning inside ourselves with a thirst for knowledge. One that spreads quickly through the darkness. We need to show that passion to students and show how they can seek and find what they are curious about.
Lovely words, I know. How? How do we fan this flame of questioning and love of pursuing knowledge? We model it. After the next question a student asks, respond with I don’t know. How can we find out. Who knows where that road might lead?
Berger, Warren. (2014). A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.
Bransford, J., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
[Untitled illustration of a Multiple Choice Test]. (CC BY 2.0). Retrieved July 1, 2016 from https://www.flickr.com/photos/otacke/12221292443
[Untitled illustration of a Question Mark]. CC BY-SA 3.0. Retrieved July 1, 2016 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Question_mark#/media/File:Circle-question.svg