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.

How Do We Not Crowd Out the Space for Wonder? (2/365)

photo of the Orion Nebula by Bryan GoffAs is so often the case, a post from Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings gave me pause today. Popova writes about John O’Donahue’s Walking in the Pastures of Wonder – in Conversation with John Quinn and offers some beautiful reflection and several excerpts. This one, though, struck me most deeply:

Each one of us is the custodian of an inner world that we carry around with us. Now, other people can glimpse it from [its outer expressions]. But no one but you knows what your inner world is actually like, and no one can force you to reveal it until you actually tell them about it. That’s the whole mystery of writing and language and expression — that when you do say it, what others hear and what you intend and know are often totally different kinds of things.

It is, perhaps more socio-emotional than you’d prefer. Stop, though, and think about the possible implications – particularly for education.

When I get the opportunity to observe a classroom, I am constantly on the lookout for evidence of curiosity. If I leave a room and can only comment on the knowledge of the teacher and what questions he might have about algebra, biology, or literature, then I know we’ve missed an opportunity.

For all the talk of personalized learning and data mining, we often miss the greatest source of data-turned-information-turned-knowledge-turned-wisdom to which we have access – the inner worlds of our students (if I might borrow from Quinn).

In the classrooms where I find the most evidence of learning, I have the fortune to see teachers not only asking students to share their curiosities, ideas, and beliefs, but helping their classmates to develop these habits as well.

One particular observation sticks with me. In a third grade classroom, students and teacher assembled on the carpet at the front of the room, the teacher has posed a questions for discussion. The students have talked with their partners about what they think of a given topic, and one little girl has raised her hand, been called on, and is now “um-ing” and “well-ing” her way through her answer. She gets a bit off track – the consternation clear on her face.

In too many of the classrooms I see, the teacher would have stepped in, kept the child from struggling, and either asked someone else or said what he hoped the child was trying to say.

This teacher did something else.

“Do you need time or help?” she asked.

The child paused, “Time.”

And she was given time to sort out her thinking. And her peers were kind and attentive.

Not only were the children in that classroom being immersed in the idea that a teacher might actually be interested in their thoughts and making room for them to be tinkered with, they were coming to an understanding that getting to our answers might take more time than we’d sometimes expect.

It has me thinking about where I can create space in my daily conversations to give more room to others to bring forth the ideas they might otherwise think too nascent for sharing.

What about you? What might you do to make space for those with whom you learn to share?

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

Let’s honor the questions in the room

Finger face with a question

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” 
― Thomas PynchonGravity’s Rainbow

I called a store today to ask for a thing. It quickly became clear that this was the wrong store for the thing I was looking for. Usually, this would be the end of the conversation. It turned out not to be in this case.

“Well, what kind are you looking for?” the salesman on the other end of the line asked.

I explained in greater detail the doodad I was looking for, which, remember, we’d already established his store DID NOT HAVE.

“Hold on,” he said, “Let me take a look online.”

I waited a moment while he followed up on some leads. “Okay, here’s where you need to look,” he told me and then sent me on to a site with which he and his store were wholly unaffiliated with.

I thanked him for his time and attention to detail. Before we ended the conversation he told me to call back if those leads proved fruitless and he’d see what else he could do.

You, as I did, are probably flashing back to Macy’s and Gimbel’s. I want to take it a step further, because it’s been jangling around in my head as an important point to remember as we lead classrooms and professional learning.

The questions we’re there to answer may not be the questions those with whom we are working show up excited to ask.

It happened all the time for me as a student (at all levels). The teacher would introduce a topic of study and my brain would immediately begin generating questions sometimes ancillary, sometimes tertiary related to the topic. I would raise my hand, ask my question, and be greeted with a reply that told me I asked an interesting question, but that wasn’t the business of the day.

Eventually, I learned how to play school a little better. When a subject was introduced, I stifled the questions brewing from my own perspective and started to try to ask the question I thought the teacher or professor wanted me to ask. Sometimes, I knew the answers, but I’d learned that wasn’t so important to the teaching the teacher was there to do.

What the man on the phone reminded me today, and the lesson I hope to take with me the next time I work with a group, is that I’m there to help whomever I’m working with find answers to the questions that walk into the room. If we do that in our classrooms and staff meetings, then the other folks in the room – the ones walking in with the questions – might see our time together as that much more valuable.

128/365 Zoomie Has Some Questions about American Education

One of the many folks I was fortunate to meet and talk with during IDEC2013 was a young Taiwanese student named Zoomie. She asked if I was available to sit at dinner and talk about education in America, but I had another commitment, so I wasn’t available. We worked out that she would email me, and I’d my best to answer whatever questions I could.

I got Zoomie’s email tonight, and thought I’d post her questions here in the hope that others might leave their answers in the comments and I could forward more than my own simple viewpoint on for Zoomie’s project.

So, what do you think?

Q1: Tell me about the school life for the students here  (middle or high school )
Q2: Do you like current USA education system?
Q3: Where do you think there are problems?
Q4: Do you like to change it ?
Q5: If so , how could it be changed?
Q6: What did you think the most America adults will think current education has problems?

As you answer, keep in mind that Zoomie is still working on her English so answers in the American idiom might prove puzzling. This has the added benefit of being a set of questions that has me curious as to others’ answers.

127/365 These are My Questions about Equity and Social Justice

I had the privilege today of participating in the Coffee Talk that opened today’s programming at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC).

Forgoing keynotes or panel discussions, conference organizers decided to pull together folks from different backgrounds but of similar interests to have conversations and then spread those to the larger group.

When I showed up, I realized today featured a different setup entirely. In an attempt to meet the wants of attendees (it is democratic, after all) organizers had collapsed the different coffe talks into one and then encouraged attendees to take part in a modified fishbowl.

Coffee talkers began in the center of a set of concentric circles. We could say our piece or not and then vacate our seats for attendees to jump in and participate.

It was an altogether difference scenario from that for which I’d prepared myself.

For the first hour, I sat and listened. The larger audience and set of speakers compounded my worries that I wouldn’t have anything to add.

As speakers took turns speaking theire thoughts into the mike, I knew I didn’t have any pronouncement that was necessary to lay upon the layers of declarations that had come before me.

I started listening for a different reason – What questions did these pronouncements raise for me.

In a room of people who spend much of their time considering democratic education, social justice, equity and all that accompany these thoughts, it struck me as a place to deploy questions.

Mine were as follows:

  1. How do we better understand those who disagree with us – whether on the importance of equity and social justice or on the path to these goals? It strikes me as less than enough to be against those who disagree with us. If there is hope for progress, we must come to a place of understanding. This is not an argument for abandoning our principles and beliefs. Rather, it is a call to ask questions of those who disagree so that they might consider their beliefs more closely through their answers.
  2. How do we prevent the drive for equity from meaning we are all equally unhappy? Not unlike a toxic relationship, those who speak of privilege and power often do so in a way that makes me think we are struggling to make those who aren’t us feel the unhappiness we have known rather than striving for equal happiness and joy.
  3. How do we remember adults are not fully formed? Several times during the conference and in general dealings with adults, I’ve noted tones of voice in comments that are less forgiving, less caring, and less empathetic as adults speak to adults than I think those same adult speakers’ voices would hold were they speaking to young people. We’re all unfinished. We are all growing, and we are all imperfect. How do we remember this as we help each other become more perfect?
  4. What does it take to pause and appreciate the small movements and moments of success as we work toward our ideals? This is tough. The race is difficult and the road is long. Because of this, we often lose track of the milestones we pass. When those with whom we disagree make small concessions, we must learn to pause and appreciate such movement. If not, we’ll lose the patience necessary for moving forward.

If we can consider and craft answers to these questions, I think there will be greater hope of progress in the walk toward more democratic systems of education. Maybe.

Image via m.gifford

53/365 The Most Important Question is What Students are Curious About

Sit in any classroom, traditional or not, and wait until the end. Then, attend to following question, “What were the students in this class curious about?”

It will be tempting, in this excercise, to answer with what they were “supposed” to be curious about, what questions were asked as a class via teacher re-direction, or what you yourself were curious about and thereby assigned to the students. Don’t do any of these things.

Instead, look at the notes you were copiouslly jotting down during your observation and try to find direct, empirical evidence of student curiosity. If you cannot, something is wrong.

One of my favorite questions to ask when debriefing a lesson teachers have just taught is to ask them what they thought students were curious about during the class period. To do so reframes our reflection on teaching in a way that looks to learning as a process of exploration based on the naturally occurring questions and wonder that come along with encountering new ideas. Ask any teacher more in love with their content area than anything else why they love that content, and they’re likely to describe some formative experience when they started questioning and never quite found the motivation to stop. Sadly, these same teachers, enamoured of their content often fail to hold enough back in their teaching to invite those same questions from their students.

Lessons in these classrooms often become, “I know this, and this, and this, and this…and you should too.” Students in these settings have no need for curiosity. The content is presented to them as having uncovered all the answers worth finding.

If our goal is to foster in our students the same sort of wonder that drives our own curiosity, we must realize the answer is not showing all that we know and can be known.

Instead, the answer comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s eight basics of creative writing as outlined in his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box. We don’t even need all eight. One will do.

“Start as close to the end as possible.”

While appropriating a guideline for fiction writing may seem strange when discussing those things worth knowing as true, it certainly isn’t. To instill curiosity in our students (and ourselves) we must start as close to the end of the story as possible.

History classes are as fine an example as any. In their most traditional sequence, these classes begin with the earliest recorded history and then move forward across the years. Oddly enough, since we began the teaching of history, more of it has taken place, but that might not be obvious in the contemporary history class. A student graduating high school might have learned about the past through the end of World War II (maybe the Vietnam War if he’s lucky), but that is likely where history ended for this student because of our fascination with passing on our knowledge of how things are starting with the earliest details as though they are inherently important to those during the learning.

Imagine, instead, if we take a page from Vonnegut, and teach history starting as close to the end as it stands now and walk into a classroom saying, “Here’s what happened in the world yesterday, what questions does that raise?” Such a class is likely to face a time crunch just as the traditional class did. This time, that crunch will be students not having enough time to ask and search for answers to all the questions that arise rather than the teacher not having enough time to lead an abstract field trip that finds as its point of origin ancient Mesopotamia.

If we ground our reflection in “What were they curious about?” and start our teaching as close to the end as possible so as to draw out that curiosity, we will have moved a long way to creating the schools we need.

Bringing the Phone Tree out of the Moth Balls

Never having played sports in school (or ever, really), the phone tree, as I understood it being used by soccer moms, never really entered into my life. I got the concept, but never needed.

When talking to a music teacher a few weeks ago about how he was using technology to care for students, the phone tree became suddenly relevant.

After a marching band gig, the teacher had sent a mass text to all of his musicians thanking them for showing up and performing. A simple act this teacher hadn’t thought much about until I’d worked to underline the importance of the ethic of care in the classroom.

It was a simple act that, after the instruments had been packed away, reminded the students that what they did mattered to other people and that they were valued.


It also got me thinking about a possiblity for phone trees in the classroom. Apps are great and I’m all for welcoming kids to bring tech into school spaces. Oftentimes, this transitions to a mandate or a platform requirement.

Enter, phone ring.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. At a class’ opening, each student is linked to another. A to B, B to C, C to D, etc. until Z is linked back around to A in the end. (More of a phone ring, I’m realizing.)
  2. Working on anything – homework, projects, whatever – if C has a question she can’t quite figure out, she gets ahold of D via whatever means necessary. It can be text, IM, e-mail (gasp), phone call (double gasp). D and C work together find an answer.
  3. If they can’t, that’s cool. The ring continues. D says, “I think we need another brain,” and gets ahold of E. The ring continues.
  4. Knowing the system is in place, the teacher begins the next class asking if any questions or troubles made it around the ring since their last meeting. It’s a formative assessment gold mine.

Student are practicing social skills, it’s low-threat collaboration, it values the asking of questions. It’s low-cost and allows for the use of mobile technologies without requiring them or the installation of new functionalities.

P.S. In putting together the chain, I’d probably take personalities into consideration and try to build in as much student choice. The easiest way I’ve found is starting with a conversation of what it means to be connected to someone who supports your learning and then asking each student to write down the names of three students they know would support their learning if they were linked and one student who would probably derail their learning. After that, it’s up to teachers’ professional opinion to make matches that foster student growth.

Things I Know 324 of 365: From Freakonomics to freako-not-so-fast

Half my life is an act of revision.

– John Irving

I mentioned the other day how much I enjoy reading the Freakonomics blog. Today, I read this piece from American Scientist by Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung who took a deeper look at the work of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and found some easy mistakes.

They took the guys who ask “What’s really going on here?” and asked “What’s really going on here?”

Gelman and Fung aren’t out to discredit Levitt and Dubner. Instead, they are watching the watchmen and point out moments of Freakonomics where Levitt and Dubner miss the mark or fail to ask the next question.

It’s another case of what’s popular not necessarily being what is right.

The piece is interesting for a number of reasons, but appealed to me mainly on the level of helping people to ask good questions. Rather than simply pointing out the problem, Gelman and Fung conclude with a set of recommendations that have direct implications for anyone working to make inquiries into the world and working to make their work accessible to a larger audience:

  • Leave friendship at the door.
  • Don’t sell yourself short.
  • Maintain checks and balances.
  • Take your time.
  • Be clear about where you’re coming from.
  • Use latitude responsibly.

For guidelines to asking good questions and working to craft answers to those questions that show integrity and understanding, this list is a great start. It’s also a reminder to any reader of anything that the iconoclast should be questioned as often as the traditionalist.