Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Art of Inquiry

"Sam kept a diary~~a daybook about his life. It was just a cheap notebook that was always by his bed. Every night, before he turned in, he would write in the book. He wrote about things he had done, things he had seen, and thoughts he had had. Sometimes he drew a picture. he always ended by asking himself a question so he would have something to think about while falling asleep." from Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

The questions Sam wrote down in his diary were simple, but profound. Why does a fox bark? How does a bird know how to build a nest? I wonder what I'm going to be when I grow up?

Sam was an independent learner, and his most valuable asset was his ability to wonder; to ask the right questions. Neil Postman, in his book Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, claims this as the most significant intellectual skill to be cultivated in a student. In his summary of how to teach reason and skepticism (usually called critical thinking), Postman places the first thing on his list this need to teach the art and science of asking questions.

After finishing two of Postman's books, the one quality of his writing that stands out to me is this very thing: here is a who man knows how to ask probing, deep questions.

I am familiar with the Socratic method of teaching, in which teachers guide a learning experience by asking questions designed to draw out thoughtful answers from the learner. But Socratic teaching seems to be the inverse of what Postman is advocating. Ultimately, it is the student that needs to ask the questions if deep learning is to occur. And isn't that the exact opposite of what usually happens in school? Aren't the students usually the ones expected to give answers rather than to ask questions?

Postman says,
"They want our students to be answer-givers, not question-askers. They want students to be believers, not skeptics. They want to measure the quantity of answers, not the quality of question (which, in any case, is probably not measurable). Those who think otherwise, who think an active, courageous, and skillful question-asker is precisely what a "proper education" should produce, can take comfort and inspiration from Voltaire, Hume, Franklin, Priestley, and Jefferson. Surely they would applaud the effort."

These comments have set me to asking my own questions. How does a teacher go about teaching the skill of asking questions? How are young people encouraged to get beyond the surface questions and ask really deep, important questions? How can this skill become integral to the entire curriculum, not just to science?

I've only scratched the surface in finding answers to these queries, but now that I am sensitized to the subject I hope to learn more about this as I practice teaching in homeschool and cooperative school this coming fall.

Here is a short list of thoughts that are getting me started in the direction that Neil Postman suggests:

  • Create an atmosphere where questions are welcomed and congratulated. "That's a great question!" seems trite but always makes the student feel glad that he asked.
  • Assign students to write study questions instead of always producing a written report. The best ones could be used in a group setting for discussion.
  • When studying history, look for the big questions that were being grappled with during a certain historical period or by a famous historical person.
  • Model curiosity by learning to ask questions myself.

Can you contribute any wisdom or additional insight on this subject?


Anonymous said...

When we were reading 5th and 6th grade level books together, I would occasionally have Michael write up "test" questions for me instead of his own recap or narrative. He received bonus points if they were designed to draw out thought, rather than just a yes-no or definitive answer.

Poiema said...

That is exactly the kind of practical exercise I need. Thanks

Anonymous said...

This also guaranteed that "his" education was not slipping by me, and that I was able to learn from his perspective. I treasure those conversations that came up as a result of looking into his mind a little.

ichthys said...

Perhaps the teacher should answer a question with a question ,there are some good examples of this technique in the Bible by the greatest teacher of them all.