Among trial lawyers, it’s considered gospel that you should never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. When you have a witness on the stand in front of a jury, you don’t want any surprises.
In the classroom, we often behave as though we were trying a case. We ask students questions to find out what they have learned, but we already know what they should have learned, and how they should answer our question. Unlike the lawyer, if we don’t get the answer we’re looking for, we just go to the next student and keep asking the question until we get the answer we want. What we don’t do, nearly enough, is stay with the first student and find out why he said what he did. And that’s interesting, because while we relentlessly repeat the question whose answer we already know, we ignore the real question in the room, whose answer is a mystery to us.
Some new textbook materials and classroom activities have gotten a lot of snide attention from critics of the Common Core State Standards lately, because they seek to explore how a student is thinking more than they seek a particular response. Obviously, it’s good to hear a student say “four,” when you ask her what two plus two is. But the right answer isn’t necessarily proof that a child understands what she’s saying, or what it means. She could be guessing. She could have heard her friend whisper it. Or, more likely, she could have memorized the answer without really understanding how the numbers work. Our students do a lot of math without really understanding it. When teachers say things like, “Ours is not to reason why; just reverse and multiply,” they are creating a generation of people who can do things, up to a point, but who don’t really know what it is they’re doing.
We all know, and complain about the fact, that the No Child Left Behind era gave us a world in which Tested Things matter more than anything else, where the purpose of the classroom is to prepare students to respond correctly and quickly to particularly phrased questions on explicitly defined Things. I worked in one high school that suspended all classes, the month before the state assessment, and put students into large groups to drill sample test questions all day, every day. Unsurprisingly, the students did fairly well on the tests. But when I casually asked one of the kids a question about a Tested Thing in a slightly different way, from a slightly different perspective, she had no idea what I was talking about. She was only programmed to respond a particular way to a particular kind of input. She was a test-taking robot.
Do we really need to raise our children to be robots? Can’t we make robots just fine, out of non-human materials?
We’re all trying to move away from this kind of test-obsession mindset, and I applaud the efforts to find new and richer ways to assess student thinking. But the problem is much larger than standardized testing or “teaching to the test.” If our classroom assessment remains within the realm of narrowly-defined questions with ready-made answers, we will always be teaching to the test. Because every minute of every day ends up being a test, with a single, overhanging question from the teacher: Can you give me what I want?
In our desire to be meticulous (planning every lesson carefully) and our need to be accountable (to lesson templates or pacing plans), we end up structuring our curriculum as a tale that has already been told. Before anyone walks into the room, we’ve set objectives, listed content to be learned, plotted out final assessments, and even created sample papers that demonstrate what good performance looks like. We do all the work; we play all the parts. What do we even need students for?
It seems to me that, outside of the courtroom, the questions that are really worth asking are precisely the ones we don’t know the answers to. Questions that lead to answers that might surprise us—because they come from minds not our own. That doesn’t mean that fact-based questions aren’t useful when trying to assess student learning. Of course they are. You can ask what two plus two is. Please do. But why not add a little, “why did you say that?” or “how do you know that’s true?” after you get your answer. Why not learn a little something, yourself?
This is not just a classroom problem. In our desire to shield ourselves from criticism, discomfort, or harm, we end up protecting ourselves from ever learning anything new. We are told what to think by our parents, then we are told what to think by our teachers and our friends, and then, once we leave school, we often just…stop. We tell Pandora what kinds of music we like, and it makes sure we never have to hear anything different. We tell Amazon what kinds of books we like, and it does likewise. We go see movies based on actors we’ve liked in the past, or stories we’ve seen told before, or genres we find reliably entertaining. Anything that feels too strange, we avoid. When we want to learn what’s going on in the world, we watch Fox News or MSNBC, but rarely both. We hear only the opinions we already know we’ll agree with, and sample only the culture that feels comfortable. Technology has made it possible for us to be safe from ever re-considering an opinion or developing a new taste. It’s not that we ignore or shun dark alleyways that might lead to new experiences; we don’t even see them. We are building a world in which we never have to see them.
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, entitled, “When Music Was Strange,” the author recounts her teenage exploration and experimentation with different styles of music in the 1970s, under the tutelage of a Yoda-like friend who said things like, “People don’t know what they like; they only know what they know.” He would bring new albums to the author and say, “You have to check this out!” And sometimes the author loved the music, and sometimes the author hated it. But she tested out new things and learned what it was she truly liked. In her article, she ruminates on how rare that kind of experience is, these days.
As adults, how many of us are willing to give new things a try, when a friend brings something strange into our orbit and says, “You have to check this out?” (Assuming we cultivate friends who have different tastes, opinions, and backgrounds). As teachers, how many of us consider it part of our job to bring The Good Stuff (however we define it) to kids and say “Check this out!” to them? Not just because it’s the next thing on the pacing plan, but because it’s a doorway to a world, and it might just be an important doorway for this student, or that student.
In a world of Wikipedia and Google and MOOCs, is our primary function really to deliver pre-selected facts and rehearse skills? Is that why we are necessary? When people looking to save money challenge us and say, “What do we need teachers and schools for, anymore?” what is it we’re going to offer as our defense? That only a living, breathing teacher can bring a child to learn her times tables? Do we actually believe that? And is that all there is?
It seems to me that our most important role, no matter what technology may come along, is to serve as Mentor Learners—role models of restless, insatiable curiosity, demonstrators of persistent and careful exploration. We don’t have to be the keepers of the answers anymore—the simple answers are out there, readily available. We need to be the keepers of the questions—the tough questions—questions like, “what is justice?” or “how can you know something is true?” or “what does a flower mean?” Those questions are the eternal flame of civilization, and it’s our job to pass that flame along—to light new wicks with every generation—and to nurture those little flames into roaring health by giving them the intellectual tools they need to chase after questions from childhood through adulthood.
But if we, ourselves, are not curious enough—and brave enough—to question our own preconceptions, prejudices, and tastes—if we are not willing to wonder and wander down strange by-ways to discover hidden magic (even, perhaps, some interesting magic offered to us by our students, who may, themselves, feel like saying “Check it out!”)—then how can we be role models of anything other than drudgery?
I’m sure that in my more desperate and exhausted moments, I snarl at wide-eyed optimists and say that “college and career readiness” just requires a silent obedience to the agendas and directives set by other people. But deep down, even on my worst days, I know that’s not all there is to life. I know I can’t let it be all there is.
“People don’t know what they like; they only know what they know.” Those words need to be put on a poster that we can point to whenever a child complains that he doesn’t like something (whether it’s Algebra in school or Chicken Vindaloo at home). We only know what we know. And we don’t know enough.
In or out of school, it seems to me that the most important question is not, “What do I know?” It is, “What can I learn?”