Answer hunting


A problem:

Without hope of finding answers, posing ever-more questions can be miserable.

Though you wouldn't know this to read a lot of us educators — as a tribe, we're prone to praising asking questions, and to demean finding answers. (I sometimes hear the quote by Rilke: "Love the questions themselves" used to this end.)

But answers are thrilling. Finding answers is the goal of asking questions. 

Don't get me wrong: I love mystery. Love love love it. But I love true mystery: the sort that comes from questions that elude even my best attempts to answer.

If our schools revolve around a curriculum of question-asking, we need to match it with a curriculum of question-answering.

Our basic plan:

As stated in my last post, our students will collect questions in their personalized commonplace books. These questions can be of any sort — philosophical, scientific, mathematic, historical — anything. Once a week our classes will choose a few questions to pursue more deeply.

Then they'll decide how they want to hunt for answers. There are three things (at least) our students could decide to do with a question.

  1. Write the question on our chalk wall. Our classrooms could have one wall (or a section of a wall) painted in chalkboard paint. Students could write the question, and then throughout the week other students could write their replies, and their replies to others' replies. (This doubles as an authentic chance to practice elegant lettering.)
  2. Commission a student to find an answer. Imagine, here, each class as its own Royal Society: funding exploration to solve the most tantalyzing gaps in knowledge. At the end of the week, the student could issue her report in a brief speech — 4 minutes, say, outlining how she pursued the answer, and what she found.
  3. Share the question with the wider communityWe could, for example, ask other classes their opinions, or the faculty. Or we could ask the classroom parents. Or we could ask a few particular community specialists — a rabbi, perhaps, or an engineer, or a city councilperson. (Skype could perhaps help here.)

Our goals:

We hope to...

  • Knit together a community through shared quests.
  • Invite debate when everyone can't agree to an answer.
  • Learn a whole lotta cool stuff!
  • Develop some mastery at research. (Commissioned students could have practice using Google, Wikipedia, print encyclopedias, and — gasp! — an actual library full of books.)

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

If you waltz into one of our classrooms, you might spy a pair of students earnestly debating a policy issue — like whether a lowering of the drinking age would be worth it. Or you might see a single student giving a slick 5-minute presentation on what plants eat (hint: the Sun). Or you might see a whole class interviewing someone about history — like asking a veteran whether the United States should have invaded Afghanistan.

Some specific questions:

  • When I was in high school, we sometimes had to write papers answering some specific question. Only rarely did I especially care about the question I was supposed to answer. Students should spend their time answering questions they actually care about.
  • That last point wasn't actually a question. The real question: isn't this cool?

Independent work time


A problem:

Autonomy — being able to exercise choice in what you do with your time — is a human necessity. Quality work, emotional contentment, long-term personal growth: all of these depend, in part, on a person's ability to engage in the activities that they know they need to engage in.

In most schools, students have little autonomy.

Our basic plan:

For a significant portion of each day, students get to choose what they'll be doing — let's dub this their "independent work time".

This won't be the entire day — there'll be periods where we're all gathered together. But during independent work time, students will get to choose between many different options of pre-defined activities (drawing a plant, reading a book about their Learning in Depth project, re-engaging a nettlesome math puzzle, dissecting a toaster, copying a map, and other curricular pieces you've seen bandied about on this blog!).

During this time, students will be fairly autonomous, sometimes working by themselves, other times in partners or small groups (depending on the work). The teacher will be required to check that they're doing their work, and help them when they're stuck. The teacher will also confirm when a student hits a predefined level (say, being able to draw a map of Australia by heart to a certain degree of complexity), and records it.

To help students choose wisely, we may help them write up "work plans" at the beginning of the quarter (fine-tuned each week), which they can follow or riff off of.

Our goals:

  • Students get experience in planning and self-management.
  • Students get greater satisfaction in their work.
  • Students are able to match their mood to the type of work: e.g. math if they're in a creative mood, technology-dissection if they're in an analytical mood.
  • Students simply get more learning done.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Stumbling into our classroom, you might be surprised to find that everyone is doing their own thing — but that they're not running around wild. Rather, they look intently focused on a specific thing. After a while of observing, you might notice that a group of children who had been discussing the lyrics to a Tin Pan Alley song break up and each independently consult their work plans, checking off the box that says "music" before they move to different stations.

Some specific questions:

  • Is there a better phrase than "independent work"? (I'm pulling this from the Montessori category of "works", which I'm shamelessly stealing this whole idea from.)
  • Is there a better phrase than "work plans"? (Please let there be a better phrase than "work plans".)
  • Can we have the teachers' records be stored electronically, say, in a Google spreadsheet?

A question: Should our school adopt the Common Core?


Sheepish admission: I've entirely ignored the whole Common Core debate.  I know, I know — now I need to hand back my Bona Fide Educational Puzzler certificate!

Once upon a time, I supported the Common Core because I'm pro-innovation: the nation needs a single marketplace for curriculum. I'm in favor of a level playing field for people who create curriculum — I'm especially thinking here of the JUMP Math people. It doesn't help them to have to recraft their product to the billions of zillions of state and local curriculum requirements.

And those billions of zillions of requirements aren't tremendously different, anyhow — so it didn't seem like there was much of an argument for keeping them separate.

But then my support dwindled when Diane Ravitch — long a hero of mine — turned against the Common Core. I kept meaning to get into the debate, but was turned off when the conversation was hijacked by the crazy wing of the Republican party.

[After typing that last sentence, I surfed online for good examples of anti-Common-Core whack-a-goguery to link to. After 10 depressing minutes, I decided that you could do that for yourself, if you wanted to, but that I wouldn't pollute this blog with any samplings. YOU'RE WELCOME.]

So now I'm a man without an opinion. Which can be a very helpful state.

Should our school adopt the Common Core?

What are the advantages? (Will some parents demand it? Will it make our curriculum easier to transfer elsewhere? Will it help the kids who transfer into our school, and transfer out?)

What are the disadvantages? (Would it meaningfully restrict our curricular choices?)

And, maybe most importantly — what's the simplest way to find out more? (I'll admit that reading any document written in "educational officialese" is almost impossible for me, doubly so if it's on the computer. So popular guides are much preferred!)

(Note that this is an utterly different question than should everyone adopt the Common Core.)

A school of glass?

glass The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel did a series of investigative reports some years back on the city’s charter schools. Some, it reported, were amazing — I toured one myself, and my twenty-two-year-old self was blown away.

Others, it reported, were abominable: windowless rooms in which students scribbled answers on a never-ending series of worksheets.

The funny thing, the paper reported, was that parents didn’t pull their kids from the school.

This story has been lodged in my memory for years now, and I still don’t know how to make sense of it. Were parents not aware of the awfulness of the school? Were they hoodwinked by the administrators (who, if memory serves, took a nice fee for their work)? Did they just not care?

Famously, many contemporary teachers have an ideal of the closed classroom door. The superintendent, principal, and PTA may bark, but then the teacher closes the classroom door, and does what she believes to be best.

I get this — my allergy to bureaucracy loves this ideal.

But if we’re looking to display the wonder and glee of our students’ learning on display, I imagine we may want a little more transparency. If our kids are doing remarkable things, how can we show that to the community?

(I almost typed “show that to the world,” but the question of large-scale publicizing may properly be a separate topic.)

“Transparency,” the aphorism goes, “is the best disinfectant,” and there’s a move toward almost total transparency in (e.g.) government. Maybe full transparency is good in that realm, but in a school this is more fraught.

Good teaching / deep learning can be intimate acts. Putting teachers and students on display threatens to kill exactly what we seek to cultivate.

This may be the rare situation for which a metaphor to quantum physics actually is helpful — to observe the teaching/learning situation is to effect it. I know I lock up when a parent asks to sit in my classroom. I become a different person under observation, and don’t particularly like that person.

So: how do we do this? How could we do this? How do other schools do this?

One tact would be to have recurring “public showings” — monthly information sessions where we show the kiddos’ paintings and compositions and whatnot. These might be very useful (particularly because they could fit in nicely with parent work schedules) but they don’t seem very transparent. I wonder if we could really communicate what goes on in the classroom through these.

Another might be to have prospective parents and students just tour at any point. (The private school at which we both worked did this strategy, I think well.)

Should we even have doors for the classrooms?

Gah. So many questions.