I remember being 19 years old, home for break from college, and sitting in on a class my parents were teaching to adults. I was, by decades, the youngest person in the room. Yet, I contributed to the discussion because I don't have a finely tuned “off-switch.” I may resolve to sit in the background and blend in, but it rarely works out that way for me. At one point, a gentleman in the group talked about how intimidating it was to walk into a room with a youngster like me who had “all the answers.” I was surprised by his comment – I certainly didn’t feel like I had all the answers! In reality, I had all the questions first, coupled with a drive to find answers wherever they could be unearthed.
We don't really learn from people telling us things. I am constantly reminded of this when I teach students, whether in my classroom or another setting. And I believe, contrary to popular belief, that we don't really learn from experience, either. Instead, we learn when we ask a question that we have an innate need to answer.
Think about the last thing you learned. Now think back to why you learned it. Was it because someone just talked at you for an hour and a half? Likely it was because it answered a question you asked. It could be something trivial or vital, but the answer was of the utmost importance to you.
I can layer my instruction, starting with the fundamentals, building and deriving knowledge from there. I can plan lessons with a lot of interactivity and hands-on learning methods. However, if none of these spark a question - spark the need for an answer - then they become nothing more than memories; neat things that my teacher did once. I can tell my students my objectives, I can model and provide gradual release, but unless a question intrinsic and idiosyncratic to the student makes that information vital, it will not take a permanent place in the student's thinking.
This idea that the question is at the center of learning, and that the question must be unique to the student is often called inquiry stance. It is neither particularly new nor particularly groundbreaking. Many curricula have a section called "essential questions" designed for this very reason, attempting to align the industrialization of education with the ways that students learn best. But, the teacher is left to make their question essential to the student, a la Inception (a skill I will be the first to admit I have not mastered).
Inquiry is not just for children and teenagers. Again, we learn everything we know from a question first. The answer may come from a Google search, but we had to ask the question to get the answer. When it comes to our practice, the same principle is at play. People can come tell us how to improve our teaching: what they like, what they don't like. We can sit through hours of Professional Development, hearing what worked for others. We can even try to comply and apply. However, unless we have a question that gnaws at our brain, these will be tools and tricks in our repertoire, but never essential parts of our practice.
If we do not ask questions of ourselves, we will not develop as practitioners or as humans. Questioning is uncomfortable! It leads us to the painful realization that we are never expert enough, never knowledgeable enough. However, it is only through this process that we will become more expert, more knowledgeable, more ready to serve the people we are teaching, regardless of age.
Samuel is a seventh grade math and science teacher at a Philadelphia Public School in West Philadelphia. He started teaching because he wanted to provide an education commiserate to the one he received.