Photo source: Jesse Stommel
The only answer to the best questions is another question – Michael Wesch expressed this in his article Anti-teaching: confronting the crisis of significance (2008).
Michael goes on to say ‘Great questions are rarely asked by students in an education system facing a crisis of significance. Much more common are administrative questions: “How long does this paper need to be?” “Is attendance mandatory?” Or the worst (and most common) of all: “What do we need to know for this test?”
Assuming that we all agree that the above-mentioned questions are a symptom of an education system that has failed our students, what kinds of questions should we ask to propel us into a direction which engages students in learning that is not aimed at marks?
When marks are the most important goal of education, it follows that there is a right and wrong answer, or at least the answer teachers favour – which is the best way to stand in the way of genuine questioning and meaningful learning.
As a teacher librarian, one of my roles is to support students in the research process. What I don’t think works is presenting the research process as formulaic, a process that is sure to work if you follow the given prompts. Research is more like the behaviour of a detective uncovering truths when following clues. It is a thinking and reasoning path which leads anywhere and everywhere. There is no single path.
Today I was helping several students who were researching an ‘Old Boy’ who fought and died in the First World War. As one of the tasks within the Civics and Citizenship curriculum, students are given a list of questions to answer about the veteran: What is his name? his rank? When was he born? Where was he buried? and other questions. Sometimes there is no easy way to find the answers to these questions; you have to persevere and think about piecing together what you have found, making connections and intelligent guesses.
What kind of questions did these students ask me?
“I’m finding conflicting information – what should I do?” “What is the right answer?” What do you think I should write?”
The learning here is not just about the veterans and the war, it is also about the nature of research, it is about the critical process in discovering information. It’s about developing the confidence to make conclusions based on the collected data, and it’s about understanding what you need to find out, and finding the language to express your uncertainty when you ask for help.
I’m completely comfortable admitting I don’t know the right answers with certainty. I usually tell the students that I trust their instincts and that they’re heading in the right direction, that there are many questions that lead the research. In preparing our students for tertiary study, we need to remind them that research will always be difficult, and that it’s okay to feel confused and disheartened when facing a great unknown. Learning is process; let’s not forget the process.