The trick is to start not with facts to be taught or disciplines to be mastered, but with questions to be answered. That may sound straightforward, but it’s actually quite rare for learning to be organized around questions. In fact, it’s even rare for classroom questions to reflect a commitment to real learning. What we find instead are those fact-based questions that Old School teachers are so fond of putting to the class: “Who can tell me…?”—or the practice of “guiding children to answers by [asking] carefully chosen leading questions,” which isn’t much different “from just telling them the answers in the first place.”
There’s a disconnect between our goals and our practices, a clash between what we ultimately desire for our kids and the kind of education they actually receive. We say we want one thing, but we’re really doing another—or at least allowing another to be done.
An Oregon teacher in her fifties once summarized her professional growth to me in one short sentence: “The longer I teach, the less I talk.” She’d come to realize that only by making sure she didn’t monopolize the classroom was there a real chance for her students to talk— and therefore to learn.
…making students compete against one another in the classroom is so destructive that we should not only stop doing it but take the affirmative step of helping students learn with and from one another.
…start not with facts to be taught or disciplines to be mastered, but with questions to be answered. That may sound straightforward, but it’s actually quite rare for learning to be organized around questions. In fact, it’s even rare for classroom questions to reflect a commitment to real learning. What we find instead are those fact-based questions that Old School teachers are so fond of putting to the class: “Who can tell me…?”—or the practice of “guiding children to answers by [asking] carefully chosen leading questions,” which isn’t much different “from just telling them the answers in the first place.”
Any number of theorists have argued that learning at its root is a social rather than a solitary act. Some have even suggested that the very idea of intelligence is best applied to what goes on among people rather than what happens in each person’s head. The exaggerated individualism of American culture has often blinded us to the role that interactions with others play in our coming to understand ideas.
Whenever I see children being invited to complete “any five problems” on a worksheet—or to pick a country, any country, and then go to the library and collect some facts about it—I think of Shakespeare’s observation that “there’s small choice in rotten apples.“ And even when the options are more valuable, authentic decision-making consists of being able to generate the possibilities rather than just choosing among those provided by someone else. Nor does choice always have to be an individual matter: the benefits are multiplied if students can come together to decide. They learn to listen, to consider others’ points of view, to argue carefully, to anticipate problems and work things out.
One consequence of the push to raise standards is so basic, so predictable, and so egregious that it is difficult to believe how rarely it figures in discussions on the subject. You can read lengthy articles devoted to sneering at our educational system for “dumbing down” the curriculum—indeed, entire books harrumphing about the need to raise our expectations and settle for nothing less than excellence—and find not a single word about what we’re supposed to do with the kids who can’t measure up to these new standards.
The opposite of being controlled is to be able to make decisions, to have one’s voice heard.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who wasn’t motivated to figure things out, to find the answers to personally relevant questions. However, I’ve met (and taught) plenty of kids who aren’t motivated to sit quietly and listen to someone else talk or to memorize the definitions of a list of words. That lack of interest doesn’t suggest an absence of motivation (to be remedied with carrots and sticks) but a problem with the model of instruction or with the curriculum.
The questions that drive learning come in many varieties. Some can be answered fairly quickly; others will take a long time and, in fact, may never be completely resolved. The broader questions in particular should be open-ended enough to be challenging while still being focused. The learning inheres not so much in the answers but in the process of figuring out how to ask the questions better—and how to track down the answers. As students investigate, they acquire information and come to understand important ideas more fully. The answers they devise may suggest new questions, and the learning spirals upward.
I once dropped in on a sixth-grade class in Illinois where the “hands-on” lesson consisted of gluing cotton balls on pieces of paper to represent various cloud types, whose names the students had to memorize. Completely absent were all of the ingredients that give active learning its power: the discovery of something new, a challenge to existing beliefs, interaction with other students, and sustained reflection.