My son Joshua (10) wants to know what it would cost to build a bridge between South Africa and Australia. That’s the third question in the last ten minutes. “I dunno,” I confess, and he replies: “But how much do you think?” I direct him to Google.
There’s just no getting away from young children’s questions. They are naturally inquisitive.
In my university lectures, it’s a different story. Wrapping up, I ask: “Right class, any questions?” Thirty silent seconds pass. “There must be a question. Anything?” More silence, and then a hand goes up. The student asks: “Umm, will this stuff be in the exam?”
That’s not the type of probing question I was hoping for. Children’s insatiable curiosity and search for new knowledge is getting lost somewhere along the way. Where have we mislaid the art of the question?
Seek and ye shall … get impatient?
More and more, children are being told to shut up, take notes and do well in tests. Participation is discouraged. This attitude follows them to university: former Yale professor William Deresiewicz complains in his book Excellent Sheep that “curiosity is dead”.
Deresiewicz believes that even elite schools are simply manufacturing students: they’re smart, they’re driven – but they have no intellectual curiosity. They don’t ask questions.
Former maths teacher and tech guru Dan Meyer agrees. Modern students are “impatient with things that don’t resolve quickly”, says Meyer. He explains:
There’s a strange paradox at work here. We live in an era where information is more freely available and easily accessible than ever before. Learning has, broadly speaking, evolved in three stages. First, knowledge resided in books or was held by experts. Students had to “knock” – to go looking – to find the answers. Then came Google, and with it students learned to “seek” because it was right there at their fingertips.
With the advent of Facebook and other social networks, we’ve entered the era of “ask”. Knowledge resides in the minds of the network, so students can just throw out a question on their Facebook page: “Hey guys, how would you answer this question that our professor set?”
My PhD research traced the impact of this shift by exploring student learning on Facebook. Students don’t read lengthy documents – like academic papers – any longer. They don’t go hunting for answers. They just put a question out to their network, sit back and wait for the answers to come their way.
There’s the paradox: in the online world, asking is ubiquitous. But offline, in spaces like the lecture theatre, asking questions is a dying art.
The quest for the question
There are several ways in which teachers and parents can instil a love of questions that will last a lifetime. Take my son’s bridge question. “Josh,” I say, “that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer but it would be fascinating to find out. I wonder if anyone has ever thought about it? Why don’t you Google it and see what you can find?”
Now the kicker: “And while you’re searching, see if you can figure out what material would have to be used”. He looks at me for a moment, replies "OK”, grabs his phone and starts tapping away. We’re starting with one question and one answer – then going in search of more.
This building curiosity floods the brain with dopamine, which gives kids a positive push to learn and know more.
One recent study suggests that teaching children philosophy and guiding them through questions that lead to more questions has a positive impact on their progress with maths and reading.
For university students – like my silent class – one process of using questions to stimulate critical thinking and idea generation that works well is the Socratic method. This provides a space in class for questions, debates and for students to challenge their teachers and each other – respectfully.
In a research paper about the method, Sharon Jumper says that Socratic discussions are:
This technique is being applied well by a number of websites that flatten traditional classroom power structures. The sites try to encourage learning through questioning. Socrative, for instance, turns learning into a game: students compete through questions and answers.
Other sites like Socratic use gamification and also encourage students to put questions to the online community which has gathered there to learn. This sows the seeds of discussion – and paves the way for more questions.
Technology is a powerful way to get children and students asking questions. Researchers have found that widely available tools like WhatsApp can be used to encourage questions. Even the shyest person can be emboldened to use the messaging service rather than sticking their hand up in front of classmates.
In a world full of questions desperately needing answers, isn’t it high time that we reignited the dying art of asking questions?
I have spent a lot of time explaining to teachers and other educationalists the need to shift our pedagogy from simply silicon coating old approaches to one that is more appropriate to the digital realm. We have to move away from our copy/paste approach where we simply copy our offline teaching approaches and implement them in the online world to an new appropriate digital pedagogy. Our copy/paste approach is not only failing but seriously limits the amazing opportunities of what we can do with technology.
While I have been passionately trying to share this message and the importance of developing a new digital pedagogy, I am largely seeing inappropriate implementations of technology being lauded as great EdTech solutions. However, I was encouraged after reading an insightful post by TechCrunch writer, Danny Crichton, who while having spent his life working in Silicon Valley, was recently exposed to teaching for the first time.
It’s amazing to me how unprepared I was for the actual pedagogical challenges of educating my students.
He looked around for advice from lecturers and found it wanting. He then turned to technology to see what solutions Silicon Valley offered - after all, it's solved so many other problems, surely it is helping education move into the digital age?
So I did what any person in the 21st century did, and I searched Google. It was here that it hit me just how basic our pedagogical thinking really is.
And it's here that Danny puts his digital finger on the nub of the matter - pedagogy. We have not shifted our pedagogy to one that is appropriate to the digital age. And this is having serious consequences as we simply switch ebooks for books, videos for lectures, smartboards for chalkboards, and so on. This is not using technology for teaching, at best it is silicon coating old pedagogies to dress them up in the guise of a new approach.
Despite all the technology gains made by students, educators have received just a handful of useful tools to help with better management of their classrooms and the learning process. There have been far fewer “revolutionary” attempts to transform teachers than to just entirely replace the education experience.
Exactly! It's what Ken Robinson called for years ago in his famous TED talk. We need a revolution. Technology companies responded with a silicon coating. Teachers responded with passive acceptance. And now we have the biggest danger of all - we think the revolution is taking place as schools "transform" from the old chalk and talk to the digital world. Yet it's an illusion, an illusion that is in danger of killing the much needed educational revolution before it ever happens.
This is a renewed call for the education revolution. It can't be led by technology companies that know lots about technology but little about education. It won't be led by tenured academics comfortable with their ancient teaching practices. It must be led by passionate teachers, intent on exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new pedagogies, and boldly going where no teacher has gone before.
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“If you've never failed you've never tried,” proclaims the adage. So...
It's right to be wrong
being wrong is right
it's right to be right
This conundrum leaves me not only nonplussed but...
in the uncomfortable place
What has all this right and wrong got to do with anything?
It's about a world fixated with certainty but striving for change.
It's about a world espousing tolerance but celebrating conviction.
It's about a world selling final solutions but providing beta tools.
It's about a world encouraging trying but only celebrating winners.
It's a world of poles.
Left - Right.
East - West.
It's a world of labels.
Labels are great.
They allow us to make sense of things.
Modernist - Post Modernist
Positivist - Interpretivist
Conservative - Liberal...Aah, what weighty labels this pair is, whether used in politics, religion, education, anywhere.
Labels are great.
Once you attach them to a person you no longer need to think.
He's a Vegan.
She's a Goth.
He's a Muslim.
She's a Greeny.
Labels come with [predefined packages].
How they dress.
How they think.
How they speak.
How they act.
Run preinstalled thinking routine.
Labels are great.
Once we attach them to ourselves we no longer need to think.
Run preinstalled thinking routine.
“The dominant Western worldview is not based on seeing synergies and connections but on making distinctions and seeing differences. This is why we pin butterflies in separate boxes from beetles - and teach separate subjects in schools.” (Ken Robinson)
Yet what makes us think our world fits so neatly into our predefined labels? Each of these labels unpacks into a myriad of other issues.
Each of these labels has stolid supporters who genuinely espouse the views. Not just crazy radicals, although they may exist, but reasonable people just like me...just like you.
Each of these labels has stolid adversaries who genuinely reject the views. Not just crazy radicals, although they may exist, but reasonable people just like me...just like you.
Where does this leave us if we toss out labels, if we toss out our neat categories?
It leaves us in the uncomfortable place (between).
A place where every person we meet, must be engaged and assessed.
A place where every issue raised, must be reasoned and examined.
A place where every idea proposed, must be explored and imagined.
Now that's truly an uncomfortable place to be.
A place where we can't blithely tar and feather people, issues, and ideas, with the broad stroke of a label.
- A place where we treat people as individuals,
- issues as opportunities,
- and ideas as possibilities )
Labels are wrong.
But if it's right to be wrong then labels are right, because they're wrong...which once more leaves me in that uncomfortable place
where if labels are wrong,
then paradoxically I should be labeled as
which would be a comfortable place to be.
I could reject all labels as trivializing and shallow.
I could RAGE against those who mindlessly categorize.
I could disparage those who shallowly reduce complexity to simplicity.
What makes us think our world does not fit beautifully into amazing patterns given life by labels?
What makes us think that our world of complexities cannot be reduced to the beauty of a number, of a pattern, of a label?
Rather let's be in the uncomfortable place - between - labels - and no labels.
Rather let's be in the uncomfortable place - between - certainty of what's right - and confusion about what's wrong.
A place not of solid ground...
“The world is not made of stable, rock-solid forms, but only of front lines in a battle or love story between actants.” (Harman)
Like Dadaism...an anti-art.
Art that was not art.
A non-movement that protested against society through non-art, only to become...
A movement that became representative of society's protest through art.
No sooner had Dadaism eschewed labels and classification, than it became a label, and a classification.
Between is not a place of rest,
it is not a place of stasis.
It is a place of imbalance,
a place of movement.
In this movement,
in this imbalance,
there is learning,
there is growth.
Let's celebrate vulnerability because it's the heart of learning.
Let's embrace corecting because it's more valuable than correct.
Let's treasure uncertaint... because it's the genesis of innovation.
Whether you're theorizing in academia, debating in society, arguing in religion, discussing in politics, or teaching in schools, let's question our quixotic certainties and step into the uncomfortable space called “between” - because therein lies our greatest opportunities to learn, to grow, to become.
Now I know I am right.
Now I know I am wrong.
Now I know I...
BE (In The Uncomfortable Place) TWEEN
Dr. Craig Blewett is the author and founder of the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) approach. He helps schools and universities around the world towards the effective use of educational technology.
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