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Revising the questions that shape learning

4 min read


Questions are powerful things. Socrates knew this. Einstein too. But curiosity has gotten a bad rep over the years.

First there was that little incident with Prometheus, the stolen fire, Pandora and that tempting earthen jar. If only she hadn’t been so curious.

Then, there is that old saw about the fate of a feline with insatiable inquisitiveness.

And the pinnacle of our assault on curiosity: Obsessive multiple-choice testing that drills answer finding over question asking.

Somehow it feels we have gotten our priorities wrong.

Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the answer, I would spend the first 55 minutes figuring out the proper questions to ask. For if I knew the proper questions, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.”

How much time do we spend developing powerful questions — in our classrooms, schools or policy-making bodies? What message about the value of curiosity and questioning do we send students, teachers and education leaders in our “there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, and students better get the right answer or someone’s getting fired” approach to education reforms?

Are we bypassing an opportunity to ask and wrestle with the questions that might lead to sustained transformation in exchange for more statistical data?

Yet, questions fuel innovation. They spark new ideas, re-frame old problems, and, when used strategically by leaders, inspire community, catalyze sustained growth through distributed leadership, and ultimately, transform systems. We see such engagement regularly on Twitter. Questions are a significant part of what makes #edchat, #hiphoped, and other such Twitter chats so intellectually stimulating.

In thinking about the current slate of policies shaping education, I can’t help but feel we are asking, and attempting to answer, the wrong questions — questions rife with assumptions; questions that limit thinking; and questions that quell curiosity rather than fuel it.

Below are 11 questions that seem to be at the core of education reform efforts. For each one, I offer an alternative question or two that might spur more productive conversations and result in more effective policies.

1. How can we get schools/districts/states to race to the top?

  • How can we get schools/districts/states to support one another in improving all students’ learning experiences?

2. How can we close the achievement gap?

3. How can we more easily fire teachers?

  • What might compel our most passionate and curious teachers to stay, thrive, and lead in the teaching profession?

4. How can we extend the school day and school year?

  • How might school scheduling and services be adapted to meet the unique needs of various communities?

5. How can we raise student achievement?

  • What does “schooling” look like when all students are engaged in learning?
  • What does “schooling” look like when it is meaningful to students?
  • What does “schooling” look like when students have a voice in it?

6. What deficits should we look for and how early?

  • What might be the impact of identifying and building on students’ strengths?

7. How do we design better tests?

  • What kinds of feedback loops inspire and sustain student engagement and effort?

8. What if we used threats to try and force teacher effectiveness?

  • In what conditions do teachers, education leaders, and students thrive?

9. What is standing in the way of for-profit management companies providing services in education?

  • How will we know when we have achieved equity in education?

10. If someone is a successful business leader, wouldn’t it make sense that they would be a successful education leader too?

  • What is our educational leadership supply chain and how might it be improved?

11. What if we focused on basic skills?

  • What if we focused on the whole child, from cradle to college?
  • What if we focused on amplifying students’ voices?

What questions do you think we should be asking in education? What questions are being asked about technology in education and what questions do you think should be asked? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Want to go deeper into questions and curiosity?

Jason Flom is director of learning platforms for Q.E.D. Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to creating, inspiring, cultivating, and sustaining cultures of transformational learning. He is the founding editor of the multi-author blog, Ecology of Education, and a former elementary school teacher of 11 years. He can be found online on Twitter or off-line in the woods with friends and family.