Saturday, October 22, 2011

Un-doing the Expected

Yesterday, one of our students led a lunch-time fast to raise awareness of the famine in Somalia. That, in and of itself, is not something that is so uncommon in an educational setting. Student group after student group endeavors to raise awareness about one cause or issue or another. For over a week, Sara, the student, had been making announcements and she hosted a discussion about the famine. Sara is the student head of Amnesty International. What made the awareness exercise so unusual and so powerful was uncommon fund-raiser that accompanied the fast. In partnership with our school's "Service League", the student-led umbrella organization for all community service activities, a food-less,  or "un", bake sale was held to raise money to donate for Somalian relief. That's right. NO food was sold. Baking dishes and plates were put out and even some crumbs and sprinkles could be found here and there.
Instead of food, students and faculty found signs which indicated what a dollar could purchase in the equivalent of rice or some other food product.  The impact was tremendous. The donation jar quickly filled. I was surprised and pleased to learn later in the day that the donations were far greater than I had ever heard earned at any bake sale in the 25 years that I have been at my school.

Why did this succeed? I believe it was because the students tried something new. They challenged each other to look at information differently. For the rest of the day the halls were buzzing with student and faculty discussions about the impact of the "un"-bake sale.

If students are willing to try new things to teach each other, we should be at least as willing to do so as well.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Are there ever enough questions?

I have always loved questions. At times, I remember people telling me to stop asking so many questions. Sometimes people seem to fear questions because they worry that they are being questioned. Instead, the process or desired product are the subject of my questions. As a mother, I have to admit that hearing "why" for the sixth time in a row from my two year old can have a grating effect. Yet, I do know that my daughter truly wonders. Shouldn't we encourage as much wonder as possible in our students?

How many times have we had a speaker in an assembly ask at the end of a presentation, "any questions?" When no hands go up, one can hear the collective squeaking of faculty seats as they shift while praying someone will ask a question. When students respond to a question I pose in class, I often respond with another question. I want them to see the value of mining further. I hope that by modelling this they will "push" each other. I welcome their efforts to ask questions of each other in class. At that point the discussion becomes vibrant and evolving.

These days it is so easy to access information. It is crucial, then, that we model to students and teach them how to develop questions. Information alone can have limited value. If, and when, students learn to develop questions, they learn to burrow down for deeper meaning, regardless of the topic. A recent article in the Harvard Education Review focused on the importance of Teaching Students how to ask their own questions. The article includes one method for teaching how to develop questions. We can model other methods, too.

Learning how to develop thoughtful questions can help with innovation and more creative problem-solving. Students should not be satisfied simply with answers but, with the creation of new approaches and new experiences.  To create, we must wonder and ask "how", "why", "what if."  As pointed out in Learning in a Digital Age, there is "a need to promote creative approaches to learning. How do we prepare students for work that hasn't been invented yet? .... Our global environmental, economic and social challenges require non-standardized skills such as creativity, problem-solving and collaboration. Accordingly, these are becoming indispensable skills for learners and workers who hope to stay at the innovative edge of today and tomorrow."  Memorization or regurgitation of facts do not move us forward. Questions do. Questions drive possibilities. Don't they?