Respecting the Student’s Desire to Know

questionsIn this climate of standards and assessment, can we afford to respect the student’s desire to know?

Or, can we afford not to?

I would suggest that respecting the student’s own ‘driving questions’ is a major strategy in the achievement of those standards.   Following this assumption, we need also to provide the tools for investigation and to create a school or classroom culture of support and expectation. In order for this model to work, students must learn the requisite metacognitive skills.

“If students are not able to assume control of their own learning, we do them them a serious injustice.”

Who is Pulling my Strings? CC by mellyjean  NC-ND
Who is Pulling my Strings? CC by mellyjean NC-ND

Where is the ‘locus of control’?

I have always been amazed at the arrogance with which we as a society assume control of a child’s learning as they enter school.  From birth and before entering school, children are immersed in a complex, unstructured learning environment.  And assuming supportive caregiving, these children learn a wealth of information.  They learn the major part of a language (or even more than one!), much about mathematics, science and the world around them.

“Please consider the amount a child learns before s/he enrolls in school.”

How do they do this?  Inquiry.  Natural inquiry.  Curiosity.  Questioning.  Problem solving.  Resolving discrepancies.  Trial and error.  They are in charge of their own ‘curriculum’.  They set their goals…ask their questions… generate their strategies… invoke them… and consider the outcomes.  This is obviously an extremely powerful recipe for success.  Please consider the amount a child learns before s/he enrolls in school.

Mark Brannan on Flickr NC SA
Mark Brannan on Flickr NC SA

What is learning? Cognitive and…?

Think of learning, if you will, as having two major distinct aspects.  One is cognitive.  The other is ‘other aspects of self’ – including social and affective. In this latter area I would include passion and motivation… the ‘heart’… the ‘fire’.    Often learning has been divided into ‘process’ and ‘product’.

However, I wish to propose that we consider both the ‘product and process’ as ‘content’ – in some ways the cognitive aspect.  Perhaps we as educators still spend too much time on the ‘product’ aspect of this false dichotomy, yet we do acknowledge and attend to the ‘process’ to some degree.  We do address to some extent ‘how to learn’ and we teach strategies for this to students.

We turn process into product!

The humorous part of this, of course, is by the very nature of doing so, we turn ‘process’ into ‘product’ as well.  It becomes something else to be tested and measured.  Please understand that I do not negate the importance of high standards for either product or process.  I have incredibly high expectations for students and would expect high quality results in both these areas.  It is how we get there which I question.  And the theft of the locus of control for learning in order to focus on curriculum delivery is not the way to get high standards in either the short term nor, in fact, for our larger goal of life long learning.

“The theft of the locus of control for learning…is not the way to get high standards.”

Bring Love - Gain Expertise!
Bring Love – Gain Expertise!

Don’t steal. It’s not nice! 🙂

It seems that what we need to do is more fully support the project-based learning model.  It is a ‘natural’ model that can be improved and enhanced through some formalization at school. But we shouldn’t rob those children of the most powerful and necessary attributes of learning – those of passion and being in charge of self… of all the meta aspects… of all the ‘fire’ and intrinsic reasons to learn.

So imagine a child as she moves from a world in which she has been the author/producer/director and actor of her own learning to that of mere actor… taking direction from others as to what to learn… to say… to perform.  And it is for the next 12 or more years that this is the case… except for glimpses when she is asked to ‘do a project’.

“Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.” (Neil Postman)

Wide-eyed radical?

Lest you think I am some sort of wide-eyed radical who would like to see the curriculum tossed out the window, let me assure you, that is not the case and it would be simplistic to dismiss me as such.  It is not I who is the radical one.  It is, on the other hand, radical to take a healthy, inquisitive, self-motivated learner and to institutionalize that learner to the extent that robs them of their passion and motivation in the name of ‘curriculum delivery’.

“It is not I who is the radical one. Those who institutionalize healthy, inquisitive, self-motivated learner are radical.”

Take time to find your way
Explore the landscape.

Curriculum as a landscape to be discovered

Do I disagree with the curriculum content that exists in government documents?  That is a question for another discussion, but for purposes of this article let me answer ‘no’.  I believe it is necessary to have this breadth and depth of a knowledge base articulated and available in some organized fashion.  It provides a landscape to be discovered, explored and understood through the school life of a student.

Who manages the learning?

What worries me is the way in which it is approached.  Let me continue with my previous description of kids before school.  Before kids enter school they essentially command both aspects of learning – ‘cognitive’ and the ‘other’.  Upon entering school, the ‘cognitive’ is the focus.  The ‘other’ is essentially taken over by the teacher.  The management of learning is under the teacher’s jurisdiction.  It then becomes necessary to contrive activities to engender ‘motivation’ or ‘passion’.  And this gets to be the case progressively as the student proceeds through the grades.

Things people assume about me.

  • Don’t assume I negate the benefits of ‘direct instruction’.
  • I am not laissez faire.  I expect and demand high quality work.
  • Don’t think I let kids run amok.  I am a strict disciplinarian… in that I do not tolerate ‘slacking off’.  But I do like a certain amount of ‘chaos’ in my classrooms.  But that chaos relates more to ‘active learning’ than to ‘fooling around’.

So… how do we do it?

So how do we start towards this vision?  As I suggested, we need to perhaps further adopt a project-based learning (PBL) model.  And I believe that students’ driving questions are at the heart of many types of project-based learning.  This blog contains many posts related to PBL, questioning, the zone of proximal development and the role of information and communications technologies:

Just how powerful is the role of one’s own question in learning? It may be the single most important factor in learning… both in school and outside school.  Passion – the emotional force of a driving question – raises one’s motivation, increases energy and focus, carries one through uncertainty and difficulty, and heightens one’s own expectations.

“Once you have learned how to ask relevant and appropriate questions, you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”
Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner//