ASK QUESTIONS - CREATE PUZZLES



Recently, I was invited by Dr. Shannon Orr (Bowling Green State) and Dr. Staci Zavattaro (Central Florida) to participate in an upcoming book project (to be published in 2017 by Palgrave).  They are asking 100 college professors to respond to the question:   What do you wish you had learned back in graduate school?

Isn’t that a fascinating idea for a book?   I must admit that I can hardly wait to read it myself and see what the other 99 have to say.  I am always in need of advice.   The question really breaks down to the ultimate life question:   If we had it all to do over with again, how would we do it differently?   That’s a question we should ponder now and then as we consider making changes in our present day life.  You can’t change the past but you do have some control over the present.  Thinking about the past might help us improve the future.

I spent several days considering what my honest answer might be.   Here is what I wrote.   Dr. Orr was kind enough to allow me to post this to my blog.   (So be sure and buy a copy of the book just as soon as it comes out.)
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For the first 20 years I taught in college, I believed my role was the conveyance of information.  Essential subject matter resided in my head and needed to be moved into the heads of my students almost like boxes transported along a conveyor belt.   Successful learning depended on my ability to explain complex material.  I poured hours into creating beautiful lectures.   Students transcribed every word.  Content was memorized and then regurgitated back on tests.   Occasionally in class, I threw out a question that one of the more attentive students would immediately volunteer to answer.  The rest stuck to their note taking with dogged tenacity. That strategy had proven successful during their long slog through the educational system and was not going to be abandoned without a fight.

Class evaluations were good.   I won teaching awards.   Colleagues congratulated me on my success.   And, I was so dissatisfied that resigning was an ever present temptation.   Student learning seemed stuck in low gear.   My efforts appeared to accomplish nothing more than helping bright young people become stenographers.  

In 1991, I took a desperate leap of faith and switched to the Socratic Method.   I no longer conveyed information.   Instead, I asked questions every day for the entire period.   I followed James Thurber’s mandate: “I’d rather know some of the questions than all of the answers.” This change might have seemed rather spontaneous.   In truth, the need for radical change had been building inside of me for years.  I wanted to teach differently.

The transition was not easy.   The Socratic Method takes practice. Nothing is predictable.  No two classes are alike.  Absolute control is lost.   Years are required to appreciate its intricacies.  My class evaluations went down but, eventually rebounded.  

Every student receives a list of basic preparatory questions before each class.  But, it is the follow-up questioning that pushes them to a deeper level of understanding.  “Think about what we have discussed.  Now apply that knowledge to a more complex situation.”  Developing this type of logical reasoning creates an education worth having.  

I never ask for volunteers.  I award no points for participation.  I call on everyone every day and expect students to be prepared.   “I don’t know” is not acceptable.   “Figure it out” is my reply to a weak response.   The questions are the key.   They form puzzles that must be analyzed and solved.   “Why is it done this way?”  “What would have happened if the facts had been reversed?”  “If a different country had developed rules, what might they be?”   I constantly search for questions that force students to think more deeply.  That sentence is worth repeating:  I constantly search for questions that force students to think more deeply.

Virtually every college boasts of developing the critical thinking skills of its students.   Is this a serious objective or merely a standard line added to a website?   If serious, how do we fulfill that mission? After 45 years in the classroom, I worry that not enough faculty have considered the implications of this last question.   Lectures and the conveyance of information are not the answer. 

When I describe my conversion to the Socratic Method, I often encounter resistance.  Radical change is frightening.  As a visiting history professor once told me, “I see how it works for accounting but I don’t see how it could work in history.”   Socrates would surely have been mystified by that assertion.

Our planet faces a litany of problems that threaten its very existence:  pollution, racism, religious intolerance, disease, terrorism, poverty, dwindling energy resources, climate change, and many more.  I am convinced that only one possible solution is available:  improved education.   Colleges must produce substantially more high-quality graduates, people ready to tackle these challenges.  Conveyance of information will not save us.  Students must learn to think more critically.  They must be encouraged to delve into problems more deeply. 

What holds us back?  Teachers should be leading the charge for better education.

Last summer I listened to a fascinating audiobook on my car’s CD player:  Wildby Cheryl Strayed.   With no practical experience, the author walked 1,100 miles alone through the mountains of California and Oregon along the Pacific Crest Trail.  One day, as I drove to campus, Strayed described her anxiety as she readied to begin the journey.  Not surprisingly, she lost her nerve and almost quit before regaining her composure.  In describing these emotions, she wrote a line that is so insightful that I pulled over to the side of the road so I could write it down.  

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”

Shakespeare could not have said it better.  Those words have passed through my mind now for months.  We tell ourselves stories that can hold us back from changing our lives and the lives of our students.  Never expect failure.  Never fear change.  Never view students as incapable of serious thinking.  Never view them as lazy. Never feel that your teaching is unimportant. Never enter the classroom with low expectations.   Both fear and failure, to a great extent, are born of the stories we tell ourselves.

What do I wish I had learned in graduate school?   A complete list might stretch out like Rapunzel’s hair.  

I wish I had thought more deeply about the difference between conveying information and the development of critical thinking skills.  I wish I had appreciated fully the vital role every teacher plays in the future of our civilization. I wish I had developed more positive stories about myself and my work so that I would have been brave enough to experiment sooner.  Most of all, I wish I had come to understand that good questions create puzzles that lead students to think deeply, more deeply than anything I could possibly tell them in a lecture.  If I had understood all that, I could have made better use of those first 20 years in the classroom. 


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