There should be more questions, not rote answers

25th June 2010 at 01:00
How to satisfy young people who have a hunger for learning

Everyone recognises that learning is all about asking questions. From the minute we are able to speak, the questions come tumbling out. Where do babies come from? Why is the sky blue? Can dogs laugh? And, of course, questions are every teacher's stock-in-trade. Since the days of Socrates and Plato's Republic, questioning has been an intrinsic part of learning and, subsequently, of school.

But how much time do young people spend in school asking questions as opposed to answering or attempting to answer questions set exclusively by the teacher? In his book, The Practice of Questioning, the American researcher J.T. Dillon claimed that only a tiny percentage of high school students in the US asked information-seeking questions in school. I wonder how significantly different that figure would be for Scotland or the UK? In teacher training, great emphasis is put on the importance of effective questioning, but the focus tends to be on the quality of questioning for teaching, rather than the complementary use of student questions for learning.

Part of the problem is that, in preparing young people thoroughly for examinations, we often ask a multitude of small questions when fewer, bigger questions can often be more productive.

For example, a regular practice in English classrooms is for pupils to be given a printed text and a set of questions. Replicating the exam structure, there are around 20 to 30 questions. Starting at paragraph one and moving through the text in order (often the question will point the student to the particular line or paragraph where the answer is to be found), they are guided through the extract, so the exercise is a kind of treasure hunt rather than the "close reading" it has come to be called; it is possible to answer many of the questions correctly without real understanding of the author's meaning and purpose. In reality, of course, when we engage with a piece of writing as sophisticated adults, one of the things we do as we read is generate our own questions. Isn't this a more logical place to start?

Enrico Fermi (pictured), the Italian physicist awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938, and famous for his work on the development of the first nuclear reactor, as well as his contribution to the development of quantam theory, became known for finding the answers to problems which would baffle others. Back-of-an-envelope calculations would come to be known as the "Fermi method".

This involved making intelligent approximations: Fermi questions are those which require the student to make a number of reasonable assumptions, given limited information, to make good approximate calculations. The classic Fermi question, "how many piano-tuners are there in Chicago?", requires the student to ask a series of related questions. How many people are there in Chicago? In how many households? What percentage of them are likely to have a piano? Of those, how often will they have the piano tuned? And so on.

Using pupil performance in examinations as the primary or sole criterion of success has put enormous pressure on teachers and pupils so that, while most teachers would prefer to be developing enquiring minds, they find themselves developing "exam-ready" youngsters crammed full of facts and tips.

Is it not possible to develop young people who have a hunger for learning, as well as being adept at passing exams?

Bill Boyd is an independent learning consultant.

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