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Want to know how well your student is learning or what your school is teaching?

Listen to the questions. 

I am lucky to drive 3 high school students to school a few days a week.  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  I do consider this lucky.  For several logistical reasons the neighbors and I decided to carpool.  Why is this lucky?  Well, you know how you talk in a cab or a limo without really paying attention to the driver.  That’s exactly what happens on our morning commute.  Many mornings there is a deafening silence.  The tap of thumbs on cell phones is the only sound to be heard until the “thank you for the ride,” and the slamming of the door as we pull up to school.

Today the conversation was all about school.  Here’s some of what I overheard:

  1. What tests do you have?

  2. Did you have a quiz in this class?

  3. How did you do on the quiz?

  4. Everyone gets a B in that class.

  5. You’ll do fine.

For about 15 minutes the kids talked and compared different classes and grades.  They commented on whether the questions were multiple choice, short answer or essay.  They commented on whether they were prepared or not prepared for the test.  Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, I broke my chauffeur silence.  “What did you learn in that class?”  I was hoping that perhaps there was more, just hidden behind this surface conversation.  “I don’t know, probably nothing, but I pulled off a B+ so that’s good.”  Nope, nothing below the surface.  If you look at these questions they are not focused on the learning, they are focused on the measuring.  They are not about solving problems or creating solutions they are about understanding the rules to get a grade.

I wonder if this is what the scholars that sat at the feet of Socrates or Aristotle talked about on their way to meet.  “What question do you think he will ask today?”  “Will we do better than average?”  “Will I get a gold star?”  Maybe this is just how it is, how it was and how it will always be, but I think it’s wrong.   Our job as educators is not to see if students can answer the right questions but to inspire them to ask the questions themselves.  What are you reading right now?  What are you excited about?  What are you creating?  How did you solve that problem?  These are the questions I wish I heard.  Actually, I’d be happy with any questions that related to anything besides how to get a grade.  Grades aren’t learning and the way they are being used in most cases, they are a false measure of any true learning.  They are simply a measure of how much information one can regurgitate.  It’s the questions that drive our learning, not the answers.  Think of any major development in human history.  Our understanding of the universe, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, every literary piece of work.  These things didn’t start with an answer.  They started with a question.  They weren’t the questions provided by the teacher or the pages of a book, they were their questions; personal questions about how and why things work the way they do, questions people were engaged enough in to dedicate their life’s work to answering.  I know the students in my car this morning weren’t asking those kinds of questions, are yours?

I have a challenge for every teacher today.  Turn the questions around. On your next exam, exit ticket, or even just a class period, for just one question, don’t ask students to tell you the answer or to spit back what you told them.  Ask them to ask a question.  There are no bad questions.  Even the most basic seemingly thoughtless question reveals something.  It may reveal that the student doesn’t know how to ask questions or that they don’t understand the concept enough to ask a question.  Honor every question.  Use those questions, even if they seem silly or a waste of time.  Your questions won’t make them thirsty, but theirs will.

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