Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Quest(ion)ing Disposition

In Steve Denning’s recent blog post, “Learning To Ask The Right Question,” he profiles both our recent book A New Culture of Learning and Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana’s new book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.

It is refreshing to see some of the core principles we outlined in NCL starting to catch on and be put into a framework that can easily be adopted for classroom use.  Something we saw early on was the power of questing in games like World of Warcraft to engage players in all kinds of imaginative and innovative techniques to discover, uncover, and engage with the world around them.  We called this the “questing disposition.”

How we build that concept, seemingly inherent in the gamer mentality, into workplaces, classrooms, and arc of life learning became the central theme of our book.

Rothstein and Santana’s book highlights one of our central ideas:  In a rapidly changing world, being able to ask the right questions is far more important than knowing answers.  Answers become obsolete with increasing speed in today’s culture.  But questions, especially when answered, lead us to better and more sophisticated questions, something which never loses value or becomes obsolete.

Over the past year, I have started putting some of the ideas we outlined in NCL into practice in my own classrooms.  The results have been startling to me.

Of my most important discoveries was how powerful it was to let students loose asking their own questions.  In my recent class on science fiction and visions of technology we had just read Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and I found myself with a problem.  I had been quizzing my students weekly to make sure they had been doing the readings and understanding the key points as they related to the class.

In this case however, I was stymied.  How was I going to come up with the right question to see if my students understood Dick’s point?  How would I boil down the essence the novel to a set of quiz questions?

As it turns out, I didn’t need to.  I engaged in an activity I have come to call “flipping the quiz.”  Instead of asking them for answers, I asked them for a question.  The quiz read as follows:

“If you wanted to see if someone understood the essence of this novel, what one question would you ask them?”

20 minutes later, I found myself playing referee among my students.  They each had very strong and forceful opinions about what was the best question.  And for the next two hours and twenty minutes, they argued and debated what the right question or questions were.  Some people ceded ground.  Others came to new understandings of the novel.  Some wound up agreeing to disagree.  But in the end, they all walked away with not only a deeper understanding of the text; they now had a personal investment in what it meant and how it related to their lives.

In that exercise, I found the freedom to let my students have a voice in what mattered to them.  I let go of some of my own presumptions about what “teaching” was (e.g. giving answers) and began understanding what “learning” was (finding the right questions).

At the end of the course, they asked to be allowed to write their own assignment for the course’s final project.  And while it did include some silliness (e.g. 10% of their grade was to be determined by the food they brought to their presentation), the other 90% spoke to the ability to connect the course material to their passions.

The students produced everything from high quality term papers to youtube videos to a script for a 3 act play that one of the student’s (a theater major) hoped to produce as part of her senior thesis.

What I saw and what I learned to trust about my students is that if you allow them to find their passions and to follow what matters most, they will rise to occasion and do much better work than if you follow the old strictures and precepts of traditional teaching.  I might even say that as a teacher I embraced by own questioning disposition.

What I am most proud of in my own teaching is that I got my students to connect their passions to learning and engage their imaginations to produce work that was far better than they could have otherwise.  Questions can do that.  Answers can’t.