A More Beautiful Question
In his book A More Beautiful Question (2014), Berger explains that student queries drop off dramatically once school begins. As one illustration of this sharp decline, he cites a study that found “Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. By middle school, they’ve pretty much stopped asking” (pp. 43-44). Therefore, he poses the obvious but incredibly provocative question “Why does questioning fall off a cliff?” (p. 42). He cites numerous researchers that proffer different possible explanations from the brain’s reduction in the formulation of neural links, to children just not needing to question as much, to societal stratification, to children losing interest in education.
Yet one passage in particular really struck me as speaking to the core issue of the precipitous decline we see in student questioning. Berger writes, “…the more general problem of schools favoring memorized answers over creative questions is nothing new. Some point out that it’s built into an educational system that was created in a different time, the Industrial Age, and for a different purpose” (p. 47). This hearkens back to an article I once read by David Labaree (1997) in which he discusses differing, competing goals of American education—democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. Labaree maintains that, as social mobility began to dominate in the American educational system, what one learned became less valuable than what one could get for one’s education. He explains: “The value of education from this point of view is not intrinsic but extrinsic, because the primary aim is to exchange one’s education for something more substantial—namely, a job, which will provide the holder with a comfortable standard of living, financial security, social power, and cultural prestige.” (p. 55) He further elaborates stating that students quickly learn not to value learning but the “credentials” they obtain in schools. “Grades, credits, and degrees—these become the objects to be pursued” (p. 56).
Herein lies what I believe is a core problem in education today. In the United States, our society values what has become known as the American dream. No matter where you come from, who you are, or how much money you have, you can become whatever you want to be through grit, determination, hard work, and doing well in school. I for one believe in that mantra. However as each child struggles to get ahead, education naturally becomes a competition for the advancement of the individual rather than a team effort where everyone succeeds. After all, in order to get ahead, you have to do better than the student or family next to you! As students are rewarded for getting the correct response over demonstrating growth or taking a novel approach to solving a problem, they come to see “the right answer” as the object of any lesson. Therefore, I question the entire premise that questioning drops off. Rather, I think the questions change and that this might not have been captured by the researchers referenced in the book. I maintain that the rich, deep, “more beautiful” questions we hunger for our students to produce quickly get replaced with much more superficial questions due to the way their education is structured. Students quickly learn to revert to queries such as, “What’s my grade?”, “Can I get extra credit?”, “How can I get a better grade? If I get a bad grade, I’ll be on punishment.”, “I need an A. How can I get an A?”, or “What’s the right answer?”
I think that our challenges in education are of our own making. We as educators and as a society emphasize having the “right answer” versus the learning involved. For instance, I routinely have students asking me what they can do to get an A+ or an A over an A-. Furthermore, failure is seen as a complete fiasco, weakness in the individual, and a dereliction of our duty as educators rather than as the natural part of inquiry that it is. Failure can be incredibly instructive and can inspire powerful questions in and of itself. Even in terms of this assignment, we are instructed to compose a response of 500-700 words. Quantity trumps quality. Of course I realize that the course and instructors ARE concerned about substance and that the word count is merely a guideline for students to get a handle on how much is enough of a response. Yet, how often do we outline projects and assignment in terms of quantity vs quality of learning or substance?
I am just as guilty as everyone else in this regard. I think that this credentialization (as Labaree terms it) has pervasively insinuated itself into our educational system. I wonder what might happen if we challenged students by structuring our assignments and grades on how our students demonstrate a deep engagement with a topic, the questions they asked, and their processes for investigating their questions. What if we held them accountable for demonstrating the skills they have begun acquiring, continued to hone, or mastered utilizing higher order thinking skills as opposed to how many pages, how many words, how many examples of something they have provided, or if the response has been formatted appropriately? I suspect all of us would find education much more inspiring, purposeful, engaging, and downright exciting if we did!
Here’s a link to a Slideshare from the “A More Beautiful Question” Website entitled “5 Ways to Make Better Questioners.” Just some food for thought…
Berger, W. (2015, September 15). 5 Ways to make better questioners [Slideshare PDF]. Education. https://www.slideshare.net/featured/category/education
Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Buckley, L. (2013, January 16). Inquiry Grade 5 [Students utilizing MLA on laptops]. Retrieved May 27, 2017, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/lindybuckley/9849708763/
Labaree, D. F. (1997). Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), 39. doi:10.2307/1163342