Question posing


A problem:

Schools don't teach how to ask good questions. Which is a shame, because good questions are magic.

They're hard to ask, though! To ask a good question, you have to understand what you know and what you don't know, and stand on the very edge. A good question transforms a cloud of unknowing into a tool. A good question directs your emotions toward finding an answer.

Posing a good question isn't easy. It's hard to ask big questions, hard to ask specific small questions, hard to ask solvable questions.

In fact, questions of any sort only come into schooling in a limited way. Students ask questions in school, of course, but often just at the periphery — when they really don't understand what the teacher just said, and feel bold enough to admit it. But great learning is powered by questions.

Our basic plan:

Every day, students collect their observations, questions, and stray hunches into a special idea-journal they have (for now, dubbed a "commonplace book").

Once a week, the class meets to share the questions they'd most like to pursue. In that meeting, students evaluate their questions — are they open-ended, or close-ended (for example, could they be answered with a single word?)? Are they factual, interpretative, or evaluative?

In the meeting, the class chooses a handful of questions that they'd most like to pursue.

(For how, specifically, the class might pursue the questions, look forward to the next post! It'll be epic.)

Our goals:

Our hope is for students to get good at recognizing what they don't know.

We hope that recognizing that they swim in mystery might make them much more curious about everything.

We hope that wielding the ability to control questions will give students control over their learning.

We hope that giving students a regular chance to share their questions (and explain their findings) might cultivate a community of passionate learners — something like that which is depicted in Raphael's famous School of Athens.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Walking into our classroom, you might notice students furiously scribbling notes in their commonplace books whenever a question pops into their head — as they study a ficus tree's roots, say, or watch the opening to Casablanca.

Some specific questions:

  • I'm imagining this question-meeting as being once a week — but I wonder if there's a value in doing something once a month, as well. Maybe we could set a theme for the month, or set some broader questions.
  • Initally, I imagine that the teacher will lead the question-meeting, but eventually it'd be great to have students try taking it over.
  • When would be the best day to have our question-meeting — the first day of the week (Monday), or the last day of the week (Thursday)? The easy answer is Monday, but I wonder if letting the questions mull for a weekend might be cool. (Also, students could research the question on Friday, our "school day off".)

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?

Learning in Depth


A problem:

Students have no idea how deep understanding can go. They have no sense of how much of the complexity of the world they can re-create in their own heads — and so have no experience of the pleasures that come with this.

Students don't have any sense of this, because schools don't typically give them this until the master's thesis.

Our basic plan:

We'll build Kieran Egan's Learning In Depth projects into the school week.

Near the beginning of the first grade year, students will come to a ceremony where they'll be awarded a single, simple topic — e.g. dust, horses, or flags — that they'll research over their grade school, middle school, and high school years. (Here's a list of the possible topics.)

Students are the leaders in planning out their own research — their reading, experiments, surveys, and so on. They do so, however, with the help of the teacher, and perhaps with other community mentors.

At the end of each year, students present their learning to the community.

Our goals:

We'll have succeeded if students...

  • gradually get a new conception of how complex the world is — even simple things.
  • gain a warranted trust in their own abilities to understand new things.
  • become convinced that virtually everything is interesting, no matter how dull it may have seemed initially.
  • develop a new sort of love of a topic — a calm contentment that lasts after the flashy, excited passion for a subject has subsided.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

From the outside, nothing would look different — during our "LiD" study periods, kids would be reading, writing, and drawing — just as they might be throughout the day.

At the end-of-year LiD presentation, however, you might see parents, faculty, and local community members gathering in a darkened auditorium to watch kids presenting the fruit of their learning — proving that kids can understand so much more than most of us ever thought possible.

Some specific questions:

  • How should the topics be assigned? We've got three possibilities:
    • Totally student-chosen. A positive: kids begin somewhat interested in the topic. A danger: shortly, they'll lose interest, and think that this is because the topic itself is no longer interesting.
    • Totally random — kids pick tiles out of a hat. This was Kieran Egan's original proposal. A positive: kids don't lose interest (because they'll probably not start with any), but gain interest. More than anything else we do, this could teach everyone in the community that everything is interesting. A danger: some parents may find this insane.
    • A mix — teachers choose a few topics for each child to pick between, based on that student's personality. Kieran recommends this as a possible meeting point for all involved. Some kids are more interested in mechanistic things: teachers might put tiles like "electricity" and "trains and railways" into their bags; other kids are more interested in living things: teachers might put tiles like "mollusks" and "silk worms" into their bags. Some magic (the magic of randomness!) is retained, by having students choose a tile at random.
  • How much time per week should be allocated for Learning in Depth projects?
  • Should we have dedicated Learning in Depth project time? Or should students pursue it as one of their many projects?
  • Is there a danger in putting both Learning in Depth and Independent Projects into the classroom? Do they fulfill roughly the same functions?