Teaching writing through questions (and cupcakes!)


Learning to ask useful questions is one of the most important things we can teach. Might I invite us to be skeptical of this claim? It has a certain "hippie-dippie" ring to it that makes even me dubious!

I've written before of our method of teaching question-posing and answer-hunting. We're spending significant time each day on this. Is it really worth it? After a year (or more) of being in a community that cultivates these skills, what might we hope for?


A former student of mine sent me an e-mail yesterday describing his experiences in a year-long seminar I led on happiness a while back. (A fun class! I'll be describing the newest version soon.)

He calls especial attention to how our class affected his writing ability — which is interesting, since I never had the students write more than one sentence a week.

Specifically, I had them write down a single question: what question they'd most enjoy posing to the class. When we got together, we compiled those questions, and simply voted on which ones we'd like to tackle first. (The person with the winning question got, erm, a cupcake.)

What follows is, of course, an anecdote — one student's experience. We shouldn't assume it'll be the norm, and we shouldn't let this distract us from systematic track of how all students experience question-posing and answer-hunting.

But: well, read it for yourself!

(I've taken the liberty of boldfacing certain words and phrases, to ease Internet reading.)

I've been hearing a bit about a new happiness class this fall. I'm starting school at UW in fall (and hopefully lab work), so sadly I don't know if I'll be able to come. But it reminded me of something that I've wanted to tell you for a while! Namely: happiness class taught me how to think and, by extension, how to write. For the longest time I could only write research reports, simple straightforward summaries of information in topical or chronological order. When it came to something more akin to an essay, taking a question or thesis and fleshing it out in my own words, I balked; I was so intimidated I gave up before I tried.

We didn't do any literal writing in happiness class, but we did read and, most importantly, we asked a lot of questions. Maybe I asked more than most because I was motivated by the pursuit of a certain cupcake. But the result was that I spent an hour or more a week wrestling with every word and idea of one book chapter, combing through to find the author's arguments so that I could challenge them or pose my own questions. To be able to defend your question at the meeting I had to flesh out the argument at least a little, and I found it wasn't so hard to talk about my own ideas after all.

Come the end of that year, I had to write a pretty long final essay for a class. Before I might've flinched at the thought, but I was ready. I skimmed an entire book first to get a feeling for the topic, and then I sat down and asked, "what questions can I ask about this?" And it worked! I built up an argument with an interesting question, a supporting sub-question, and a pretty fleshed out outline. It was the easiest essay I had written, and certainly the most fun. 

Now I can't get enough of writing commentary, media or literature analysis, mini-essays, and reflections.  I know I always had some thoughts, but until I had the practice, I didn't know how to talk about them. Furthermore, I didn't know how to conjure insight on-demand. And who can, consistently? But now I have a fighting chance. What's more, the way I see and think about the world has changed. As I've grown even more comfortable with the logic of writing and the structuring of arguments (which is of course at the heart of all thought), I feel like a new world has opened up to me. I can now enjoy, wrestle with, and experience a type of thought that, before, I couldn't.

Thank you, Brandon! I could say many other things about the quality of our discussions or the great books you exposed me to, but learning how to ask questions - learning, essentially, how to think (and thus write) - was the most precious gift.

So, to sum up:

By teaching question-posing, we're teaching thinking. And by teaching thinking, we're teaching writing.

(Thanks to the student in question for giving me permission to post his letter. Which, I'll note, is very well-written!)

Natural vs. unnatural (and why this is a smidgen too simple)


Is this whole natural/unnatural divide simplistic? Yeah. But it's a helpful place to begin — even if we need to move beyond it.

In my last post, I cited a distinction made by cognitive (and evolutionary) psychologist David C. Geary: humans are biologically prepared to do some things, but not others. Things that we're designed to do (walking, singing, telling stories) he calls primary abilities. Things that we're not designed to do (riding unicycles, juggling, Newtonian physics) he calls secondary activities.

This distinction isn't just academic: it lies at the heart of what our schools (any schools!) see as their purpose. In fact, this distinction neatly encapsulates a major divide between two major philosophies of education.

One type of school thinks that learning is unnatural. These schools (let's call them "teacher-centered" schools) think a school's job is to instruct. If schools don't do a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much.

The other type of school thinks that learning is natural. These schools (let's call them "child-centered" schools) think a school's job is to provide an environment for learning, and then get out of the way. If schools succeed in doing a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much — because students learn best on their own!

So what is it: is learning unnatural, or natural?

This is a question of human nature. And in my last post, I suggested that, well, human nature is complex. Some things are natural for us, and other things are unnatural. Success in schooling depends (I suggested) on figuring out which is which.

But that's not so simple.

It's not (for example) that art is a primary ability, and math is a secondary activity. Entire subjects don't fall neatly into one camp or the other.

Rather, each subject demands multiple skills. For example, in an English class, students read, write, discuss, reason, empathize, and so on. Each skill may be primary or secondary. 

In fact, it's more complicated than that. Each skill is made up of sub-skills. Writing, for example, is made up of spelling, handwriting/typing, syntax, idea generation, idea organization, and so on.) Each sub-skill may be primary or secondary. 

And in fact, it's even more complicated than that! Typically, a sub-skill isn't purely natural or unnatural. Human nature doesn't usually work like that. There are a few things that we do wholly naturally: breathing, for example. A person raised on a desert island would breathe just fine.

Wel, obviously, schools don't need to teach breathing.

But other primary skills seem designed to be activated and shaped by cultures: dancing, for example. All cultures dance — but it's not clear that a person raised on a desert island would dance by themselves.

So is dancing primary or secondary? Well, it contains elements of both. The urge to shake and jump and wiggle — all in tandem with other people — may be primary. But specific elements of motion (for example, pliés in ballet, promenades in square dancing, and arials in swing dancing) may be secondary.

Why does this matter? Because we need to tap into students' primary abilities, and be prepared to systematically teach secondary abilities.

In teaching dancing, for example (as will be an important aspect of our schools), we'll need to capitalize on young students' desire to shake and jump and wiggle, and on older students' desire to touch each other. (That schools typically ban touching seems a sure sign that they're evolutionarily off-kilter.)

But we won't assume that undirected wiggling will automatically bloom into beautiful dancing. Rather, we'll be prepared to teach elements of more formal dancing from a host of cultural styles — circle and line and ballet, salsa and swing and waltz, flamenco and mambo and Bollywood.

As I said before, we'll start with abandon, and move into structure.

If we don't tap into students' primary abilities, we'll be passing up our greatest resource. This is the mistake that teacher-centered education makes.

And if we don't systematically teach secondary abilities — if we expect them to just grow up naturally — we'll be denying our students the education they're ready for. This is the mistake that child-centered education makes.

Our job — as a new kind of school that takes human nature seriously — is to draw upon primary abilities, and systematically teach secondary abilities.

Next, I hope to explore how this can look in teaching writing.

(Props to David Geary: his categories of "primary" and "secondary" abilities are designed to reflect this messy reality. They're not "pure" categories. It took an earlier debate on this blog — about whether math instruction is "natural" or "unnatural" — for me to realize that. Props, too, to Catherine Lewis, who helped me see that.)