I ask myself that question constantly. The look of engaged students chomping at the bit to ask more and more questions. Kids getting into arguments about hypotheses and debating all sorts of ideas. This is student led learning at its best. But how do we as educators actually create that in the classroom? What protocols are procedures to we enact that allow for students to feel safe enough to let go of the insecurities and embrace the process? When do we tighten the leash on discussion to focus the class towards a specific line of conversation?
These questions are big, difficult questions to answer and they way that I have started to achieve this goal is to include my students in the decision making process. I ask them. Pure and simple. When students notice that my role in the classroom is to facilitate discussion and keep things more-or-less respectful, they realize that I am just as ignorant about many of the topics we, as a class, are trying to figure out. When I model my enthusiasm for learning and include my public acceptance of my profound ignorance, they also begin to understand that learning must begin with questions. Lots of questions.
We ran an experiment last week in my class. We were about to begin a unit on Africa and I wanted to try something new. In years past I have started with a teacher led KTW discussion of where students are in respect to the continent (KTW = Know, Think I know, Want to know). This always churns up the same tired stereotypes of African culture and exposes American ignorance of the continent.
I had no intention of doing that over again. I began my class with a short chat about what good questions are and what bad questions are. The kids really took to this starter activity and came up with the following chart:
- There is a simple, easy answer.
- They are juvenile and are not very interesting.
- They are usually YES/NO or True/False.
- There is nothing more to know.
- They end a conversation.
- They usually begin with “Why” or “How”.
- The start conversation or move them forward.
- They are complicated and take many steps to understand.
- They make you curious to find out more.
- They spark more questions.
Kids could use any resource in the classroom to think of questions. They could get up and move around the room and ask other students what questions they were thinking about. The task however was an impossible one for the groups to achieve. The concept of impossible tasking is one from entrepreneurship classes and others of that ilk and can be extremely useful in a middle school setting. In their table groups of 4-6 I asked them to generate twenty-five questions about Africa in twenty minutes.
With the clock running the students took of at a blistering pace. The room was buzzing. Students asking me what I thought about Africa (in these cases I am always pleasantly unhelpful) and I would redirect them that this was not about my thoughts and questions but theirs. At first many students started asking ‘bad’ questions. This was OK I told them, just like in any brainstorming session, you have to get through the crud and bad ideas before an ah-ha moment of clarity presents itself. A few more minutes passed by and then all of a sudden, with about 8 minutes left in the activity, an explosion of creativity occurred. Kids began to lean in and ask questions about the questions they were asking each other. When this occurred I immediately encouraged and praised this move and to write all of the new questions down. You could always go back later and edit…
The result was fabulous. The kids’ eyes were afire with energy and you could feel the pulse of the class ready to rush forward into their discovery of the continent. We followed that activity up the next day with a museum walk of all the questions students came up with the day before and narrowed each class down to a top five. It was a complete coincidence that each of my four classes shared at least two of the questions that all the other classes. Here are a few of their questions. Keep in mind these questions were all generated by 11-12 year old 6th graders:
- How did the slave trade affect the development of Africa?
- How do local cultures treat women and what effect does that have on women’s’ rights in Africa
- Why is access to clean drinking water such a problem in the Congo Basin? (Also Nile River)
- What effect did Europeans have on the development of Africa?
- Why is Africa always ignored in international news?
- What happens where Christianity and Islam overlap in Africa?
- Why does child slavery still exist in Africa?
I could not have been more proud. My students want to tangle with some very complicated issues that don’t have neat, clean answers. That is OK. Should I shield them from the harsh realities of the world? No, but I will reflect with them in a conversation about where they fit into a world that is not perfect. What will they do about it?
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