Answer the Question You Were Asked (9/365)

hand raised in a crowd

Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph on Unsplash

Preparing for a big presentation tomorrow, I was given the following advice, “Answer the question you were asked, not that question and the next one.”

My team and I will be reporting out on the work we’ve done reviewing and revising the state’s ELA academic standards over the last year. Given the lift of the project, we have had to make many decisions. The point of the advice was not to yammer on or take everyone down a rabbit hole they weren’t really interested in to begin with.

It has me thinking, though, about how we operate as teachers when students ask us questions. I remember teachers I’ve had and how we knew, in the event of a boring lesson or assignment, all we needed to do was pull the rip chord of a question and these teachers would help and clarify right up until the end of class.

Answer the question you were asked, not that question and the next one.

It’s strong advice for the classroom. It’s easy for us, as the more experienced learners in our disciplines and the designers of our students’ learning experiences, to anticipate what we thing their next questions will be. Each time we pre-emptively answer those questions, we  prevent our students from discovering answers for themselves. We also eliminate the need for them to be curious and consider exactly what they want and need to know next. We do an end run around students’ curiosity.

It is as though we’ve said, “Let me go ahead and ask everything and learn everything for you. Your job is to copy down my learning.”

The approach makes sense. This is the easiest and most straightforward way to transfer the records of knowledge. It has little or no chance of actually transferring the knowing.

This rule has a complement. Ask only the questions worth thinking about.

Putting two fractions on a board, telling students one of the fractions is larger than the other, and then listing the rules they need to know this is true is a much cleaner approach. It requires compliance and practice problems. Asking a student which of a pair of fractions is larger after this will only require them to look at what you’ve told them. Ask them why, and they’ll quote you to you.

Putting two fractions on the board and asking the room which one is larger and then being silent, though, that is messy work. When the classroom decides on the correct answer and replying to them, “How do you know?” Following up those answers with, “So, what are some things we think are true when one fraction is larger than another?” well, that might take all class (or longer).

At the end, though, one of these approaches will yield empowered mathematical thinkers. The other will get you compliant note takers.

Answer the question you were asked, not that question and the next one. Ask only the questions worth thinking about.

The Search (and Price) of Intelligent Algorithms


Sometimes, when I want to know what it’s like not to be me, I’ll jump into incognito mode on Chrome and search for something, anything – just to see what a newborn baby might find on his first search.

If there’s a notable difference, it’s that I’m searching alone. None of the content from my friends (as Google knows them) is present. None of the recommendations take into effect what past me has gone searching for. I’m asking a question of the entire web, not the web as Google curates it for me.

Still, Google lets me search. It doesn’t require I feed its data monster with my specific personal information. I am free to wander the Internet as anonymously as possible for anyone with a static IP address.

When I turn to sites like LinkedIn or Facebook, though, doors are closed. While Google will let me get by only paying with the what of my searching, these sites raise the price – they want to know who.

All of this rests on the idea that computer algorithms are strong in their ability to furnish me with answers. The more they know about the questions I’m asking, the better their ability to anticipate and queue up answers most relevant to me. That’s Me, specifically, not someone like me. Insomuch as is possible for a machine, these lines of code are personalizing the answers for which I’m searching in my learning.

But these algorithms are doing more than that. They are deciding what I don’t see. They are narrowing the Internet I experience. Because search engines and other sites that track my behavior online track what they take to be my habits, the options I see when I go looking for information are the answers I’m anticipated to need or want. And, there’s a trade off. I often find what I’m looking for, but I hardly ever stumble upon something randomly interesting. Imagine traveling the world an avoiding all the places you hadn’t seen or heard about before.

These are the answers algorithms provide.

What’s more, while these lines of code are narrowing the world and people I experience online, they’re failing to help me ask better questions. When I’m led to ask questions online, it’s because of breadcrumbs left by other people on the chance I might want to make a turn. Think of a Wikipedia entry as an example. A well written page includes loads of links to what a computer might read as randomly selected. Even when able to identify parts of speech, it is the human element that decides Prince Adam deserves a link on the entry for Skeletor while leaving Keldor as plain text.

Algorithms suck at curiosity. They don’t anticipate it well, and they rarely engender it in users. Any program that ushers a user through a series of pre-conceived questions is avoiding actual questioning. To keep the travel metaphor going, these experiences are like riding It’s a Small World rather than actually traveling to each of the countries depicted. And, no matter how well such applications anticipate your reaction to a given set of stimuli, whatever is put in front of you next isn’t computer generated, it was programmed by someone who decided where your unknowing should go next.

While the secret soup that makes search engines and other sites pull up the answers to my questions is imperfectly good, I have to remember that it comes at the cost of my information (anonymous or not) and experiencing the world in a way someone like me is “supposed” to see it. This is more limited than I know.

For however good these systems are at finding my answers, they are nowhere near as capable of helping me generate questions as a conversation with a friend or reading a thoughtful editorial. While they are able to learn, they are certainly not curious.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

I’m Falling Behind My Questions

Racin' Snails 2

I long ago gave up on examining all the information available to me. I’m slowly coming to accept I haven’t the time or focus to examine all the information that interests me either. The piles of books littering my home and office along with the dozens of articles I’ve currently got open across multiple devices are evidence I might be more curious than I have time for.

When I started talking with and coaching educators on building a conceptual framework for managing information flow as they started to utilize digital tools, my advice was to focus on those topics about which they were most interested. Now, that reasoning only stands to serve intensely acurious individuals.

Every question I can pose has a corresponding rabbit whole waiting for me to jump. Each of those books and open articles is a map of where I intend to jump – later. I don’t know that later will ever come. Not for all of them.

I will never have time to read and consider the answers to all of my questions. They are too many and the sources of information more multitudinous still.

Faced with the question of how to deal with an overflow of information now, my answer is to focus on the answers you need in the moment, and decide if free time is worth dedicating to new information or reflecting on the learning you’ve already done.

Given the effect of a full cognitive load, the answer might be none of the above. Folks might opt to zone out and let information settle. As much as I love learning and swoon over inquiry, the infinite information stream also calls for quietly doing nothing of consequence so that I can better appreciate the consequences of those answers I decide are worth chasing.

I know all of this, and yet I still pick up more books for which I can’t conceive finding the time or open yet another collection of interesting browser tabs. Because, maybe, I’ll get around to it as soon as I’ve read everything else.

I’m Exhaling Answers

Nancy Dwyer

I’m not one for answers. Giving them, anyway. I dig the search for answers, and I’m happy to help you on your way to whatever answers you’ve deemed worthy of your time. I’m not the person to whom you should turn if you’re expecting answers to questions that aren’t in my unique locus of control.

But I sure do inhale the loose ends, the un-networked nodes, the ideas in the ether that aren’t tremendously useful to me in the moment, but represent the potential of usefulness down the road.

I breath these ideas in and let them fire the respiratory flow of possibilities.

Then, in front of a classroom – in a conference presentation, on an email chain, or a chance meeting – I exhale these loose ends in hopes of creating a more complete atmosphere of answers to your questions. It turns out I’ve been carrying these loose ends to help you tie and tidy up your questions.

I’m the fellow who’s spent hours reading research reports, opening tab after tab on his browser window, shaking every hand at the party and cataloging them all in my head for that one question you ask when I’m on a panel. Often, far too often, the other folks will dodge your question. They’ll give you philosophical answers that start with, “That’s a good question,” with the subtext of, “And I’m going to answer a completely different one right now.”

That’s when I’m ready to exhale and say, “I don’t know if this will be helpful, but here are four specific places you should look to help you down your path.” I can’t promise they’ll get you everywhere you want to be, but they will get you closer than you are now.” It’s also my way of acknowledging I don’t know the answer, but I can hopefully connect you with someone who does.

In the classroom or working with a group of educators in professional development, my exhale may seem foul. Not because of me, but because of what’s come before. People are often conditioned for the yes or the no. They’re expecting the, “That’s wrong, and here’s what’s right.”

That’s not how I breath. My telling you doesn’t teach you. It might give you something new to tell others, but I’m dubious of someone who answers any question with, “Because Zac told me.” You’re ideas need something stronger than hearsay as their foundation.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning

8/365 ‘Right’ Answers are Overrated

As I work my way through Duckworth, I’m tempted to temporarily change the name of this blog to Reading So You Don’t Have To.

I threw the picture below up on instagram as I was reading last night, and feel like it needs a more prominent display:

A Thought on Assessment


My comment attached to the photo was something along the lines of this way of thinking being the only thing I needed to guide my thinking on assessment. That stands. As I continue exploring The Having of Wonderful Ideas, Duckworth is pushing my thinking on assessment even more. Actually, she’s not pushing my thinking so much as putting thoughts I’ve had before into better prose than I’ve yet managed.

It occurred to me, then, that of all the virtues related to intellectual functioning, the most passive is the virtue of knowing the right answer. Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands. It is automatic. It is thoughtless.


This past semester, for the quantitative methods course I was taking, we used a textbook of dubious pedagogy. At the end of each section, though, were some practice problems of the type I remember from my math textbooks of my youth.

Because statistics isn’t exactly where my innate intelligences lie, I found myself frequently stopping to attempt the practice problems. I was curious about these new ideas and this mostly new language of statistical reasoning. I filled large pieces of chart paper with my thinking on these problems with arrows and borderlines to delineate where one thought took a break and moved on to be another thought.

Not always did I arrive at the right answer. What I found, and what surprised me, was the sense of joy and accomplishment I felt when I had an answer and could explain those with whom I studied how I got to that answer. When the answer was wrong, being able to hold up the path I’d taken to reach it somehow took the sting out of its wrongness.

I wouldn’t have paused to appreciate and “meet” the thinking necessary to solve those problems if I simply knew the right answer. If it had been automatic and thoughtless as Duckworth describes, it also would have been a hollow victory if it had been any victory at all.

How do you say what your kids say?

A few weeks ago, I was observing a student teacher. In our debrief, I said, “When you’re asking students for answers, you put those answers into your own words much of the time. What might that say to the students?”

We then had a conversation about the possible implication that changing the students’ words could be perceived as correcting them – that what they were saying wasn’t good enough to be repeated as stated or written on the board verbatim during class notes.

My thinking has been that such switching of language could lead to decreased participation from students:

When I speak, she changes my words. This must mean that my answers are wrong. I should stop speaking so I don’t sound stupid.

I challenged the student teacher to make an effort to repeat answers as given and start writing them on the board verbatim.

As I read the second essay in Eleanor Duckworth’s “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. I’m starting to question this thinking. Discussing the work of one linguist, Duckworth writes:

If the children were asked to repeat a sentence of a form that did not correspond to their grammar (for instance, “I asked Alvin whether he knows how to play basketball”), they repeated the sentence, but with their own grammar (“I asked Alvin do he know how to play basketball”). It was not the words they retained, it was the sense. Then the sense was translated back into words, words that said the same thing but were not the same words.

That sound you might be hearing is my brain bubbling with questions:

  • If we accept that children’s retention of meaning, but discarding of words is a valid communication of meaning, does the same hold true for teacher’s repetition of children’s words?
  • Given the power structure of the classroom, does the teacher’s re-phrasing of a student’s response mean something different (or negative) than a student’s re-phrasing?
  • When do we decided re-phrasing student responses is teaching and when do we decide not to in favor of letting students know they’re free to share and expand on ideas?

I don’t have answers here, and would definitely benefit from hearing how other people think about how they accept student answers.

What does this look like in your practice?