Friday, August 8, 2014

Chasing Beautiful Questions

“What if you found that creative genius does not lie in knowing all of the answers?”  That’s how a relatively boring flight to visit family became an adventure in revamping some of my favorite lessons.  As I rapidly approach the beginning of the school year (for the 40th time), I am starting to think of lessons, activities, and how to motivate my students for yet another year.

When I started teaching, I felt that my main purpose was to provide my students with the correct answers to their questions.  The problem turned out to be what whatever was the correct answer to the question one day could very well be the wrong answer the next day.  I also became troubled by the idea that I was producing clones of myself as my students adopted my “interpretations” of literature, events, and life, in general.  I then started to think about the power of questions – but not just any questions – the ones that matter and to which we don’t have the answers.

About the time I started training teachers, I had given up on the futile attempt of giving answers and announced to my students that if they came to my class looking for answers, they would be disappointed because I had none.  Instead, we could spend our time looking at questions that are interesting and see if we could find some answers that made sense.

The article “Chasing Beautiful Questions” started me thinking of how – forty years later – we are still engaged in providing answers instead of promoting questions in the classroom.  “What is a beautiful question?  It’s one that challenges assumptions, considers new possibilities, and has potential to serve as a catalyst for action and change.”  Organizing our thinking around what we don’t know is a perfectly plausible way to start each year, each semester, each day.  We can generalize about our student population, look at census data and test scores, but any answers we get are more likely to generate more questions rather than point to a definitive path. 

As teachers, we may feel uncomfortable with the idea of not having all of the answers and therefore discourage our students from asking too many “open-ended” questions.  It is also difficult to grade answers when each student is coming up with a different answer to the same question.  We are a system based on getting the right answer, and that answer needs to be known to us (the teachers) ahead of time.  Thus we shy away from “beautiful questions” because we are not certain that we have any beautiful answers.  But are beautiful answers what our students expect from us?  Or do they just want an opportunity to explore their own beautiful questions and all they want from us is encouragement and a bit of guidance?

Looking at how innovators come up with new ideas, the article shows us that questioning is a key to innovative thinking.  “To question well and productively requires stepping back from habits, assumptions, and familiar thoughts; listening to and closely observing the world around you; being unafraid to ask naïve or fundamental questions; and being willing to stay with the questions as you endeavor to understand and act on them.”

So maybe we need to start focusing on our questions and challenge our assumptions on a regular basis because, as Warren Berger states at the end of his article “answers have a way of becoming insufficient or obsolete over time.  Only the question endures.”

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