This article appeared in TESS on Friday 25 June 2010.
Everyone recognises that learning is all about asking questions. From the minute we are able to speak the questions come tumbling out, as everyone with a toddler will be only too aware. 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 today 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 USA 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 I feel is that in preparing young people so thoroughly for examinations – perfectly understandable – we often ask a multitude of small questions, when in fact fewer, bigger questions can often be more productive. To take one example. A regular practice in English classrooms is for young people to be given a printed text and a set of questions. Replicating the exam structure, there are usually around twenty to thirty questions. Starting at paragraph one and moving on through the text in order (often in fact 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 that the exercise becomes a kind of treasure hunt, rather than the ‘close reading’ it has come to be called, and it is possible to answer many of the questions correctly without any real understanding of the author’s meaning and purpose. In reality of course, when we engage with a piece of writing as sophisticated adult readers, 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, 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, while he had great mathematical skill, would never use it when he could get the job done more quickly and simply. He became known for finding the answers to problems which would baffle others, and his back-of-an-envelope calculations would come to be known as the ‘Fermi method’. This involved making intelligent approximations, and Fermi questions, as they came to be known, are questions 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 New York?’ immediately requires the student learner to ask a series of related questions. How many people are there in New York? In how many households? What percentage of households 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, what they find themselves doing is developing ‘exam-ready’ youngsters, crammed full of facts and useful tips. No one denies that exams are necessary, or that formal qualifications are present-day society’s recognised currency. The big question, however, is whether these two goals are mutually exclusive. Is it possible to develop young people who have a hunger for learning, as well as being adept at passing exams?