Why the question is more important than the answer

If education is essentially a search for meaning, then should our goal as teachers be to ask good questions even when there are no clear answers?

For decades, our education systems have been built around the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student.  The prescribed curriculum provided one path through the maze and gave students few opportunities to learn through experimentation – to connect their own dots.

 Young Joo Kim writes ‘when trasmitting knowledge from the top becomes a dominant teaching practice, students develop a habit of mind that submits and conforms to ideas of others, rather than constructing their own views and thoughts on a subject.’  My colleague from the US, Marco Torres  refers to it as the single layered classroom.  One question, one pre-determined answer (see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ).

In the industrial model of schooling, the teacher might have had the answers but  today, it is Google.  In last weekend’s New York Times, Neal Gabler wrote:

We live in the much vaunted Age of Infor­ma­tion. Cour­tesy of the Inter­net, we seem to have imme­di­ate access to any­thing that any­one could ever want to know. We are cer­tainly the most informed gen­er­a­tion in his­tory, at least quan­ti­ta­tively. There are tril­lions upon tril­lions of bytes out there in the ether — so much to gather and to think about.

And that’s just the point. In the past, we col­lected infor­ma­tion not sim­ply to know things. That was only the begin­ning. We also col­lected infor­ma­tion to con­vert it into some­thing larger than facts and ulti­mately more use­ful — into ideas that made sense of the infor­ma­tion. We sought not just to appre­hend the world but to truly com­pre­hend it, which is the pri­mary func­tion of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.

In Singapore, teachers don’t just want their students to comprehend the world but to recognise how they can change it.  Many schools have introduced action-research.  As one teacher quoted in The Flat World and Education “Action research is concerned with changing situations, not just intepreting them…the aim is not only to make students learn why the world works in a certain way, but rather what they can do to improve it.” ( p187).

At the heart of  action research, challenged based learning (CBL) and project based learning (PBL) are the guiding questions.  Questions that may lead to those elusive big ideas.

Marco uses Nokia and Apple to illustrate this point.  After dominating the mobile phone market for a decade, Nokia’s question was ‘how do we make better phones?’ Apple considered the challenge and asked ‘how do we help people have a more personal communication experience?’  One focussed on the product, the other on the user experience.

In many ways we have tied schooling to the product, content to knowledge, teaching to curriculum delivery and we have allowed the answer to shape the question.

When the profession is guided by good questions, the instructional core is strengthened and we move a few steps closer to wisdom.

6 thoughts on “Why the question is more important than the answer

  1. I love that last sentence! Having just finished a two-day Instructional Rounds, our network found that the learning generated by good questions posed in our problem of practice was huge. However, I think we’ve also all come away feeling puzzled and aware of how much we don’t know – perhaps just one small step along the path to wisdom.

  2. The more I reflect on your comments Barbara the more I’m convinced about the power of the instructional core as a construct to continually improve practice. I’ll do a pst on this soon, but the stronger each of the three components the deeper and richer the learning for teacher and student, however these are defined

  3. Yes I agree. The instructional core and the interrelationships between the three areas is key. In particular the engagement of the student is a much neglected component in the way many of us in schools have led learning and teaching in recent times. Instructional Rounds has been, and continues to be, a motivating and exciting way of examining and improving practice for the members in our network.

  4. Why the question is more important than the answer -a brilliant statement.This I believe encompasses our role as teachers in the future. Asking the right question ,the challenging question, opens up the door to a future determined by our students. They develop ownership of their learning and we teachers take on a complimentary role with them as co-learners. John Hattie in his research documented the teacher-student relationship as having a huge impact on student achievement. This approach highlights the interelationships for both the student and teacher in their journey. I always believe that we are on a journey together as teacher and student.Obviously this will be a huge transformation for teachers and how we see our role.
    However, to do nothing would be a sad reflection of ourselves as leaders and exploring the future we have for our teachers.
    Hope this helps the discussion

  5. I am beginning to think myself fortunate to have had a design and technology background, where we set “design situations” model various tools & skills to achieve an outcome and expect students to CREATE a variety of products-not the same. We celebrate difference, encourage the thought process and value the PROCESS as much as the product. Evaluating is an integral step. Reflecting and reviewing can be just as an important as the design process to move forward in an enlightened way.

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