What’s the starting point for all learning?

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“No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious.” George Bernard Shaw

UPDATED 7th February 6.30pm

This morning in answer to a question about whether children should be taught to challenge ‘neat interpretations’, I suggested that it’s usually a good idea to know something really well before you start questioning it. In response I was told by a Head of English who has now asked for her tweet to be removed from this post that my opinion was “Rubbish,” and that, “Asking questions is the starting point for all learning.” She went on to say, “If only experts asked questions teachers may as well give up now!”

So there you have it: Asking questions is the starting point for all learning. Disagreeing with this self-evident truth means you may as well give up now.

Except, as Thomas Paine said, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry”, so let’s start asking some questions. The idea that asking questions is fundamental to learning is certainly ‘truthy‘, but I’m not so sure it’s actually true. Surely, the starting point of learning must surely be knowing something that you’d like to ask a question about? Questioning – as some generic skill, detached from content – is empty. To have meaning our questions must be about something.

Once you know something you can start asking questions. The more you know, the more interesting your questions are likely to be. In terms of the conceptual confusions students are likely to have adopted, the range of likely questions is limited. We can also make predictions about the prior knowledge they’ll bring to their understanding of a new subject. Sometimes I’ll be marvellously and unexpectedly blindsided by what students know and thus the quality of the questions they might ask, but not often.

That is not at all to say that I don’t want students to ask questions. Once they have understood the content they need to know, then they should be encouraged to critique that content. Then questions such as “Why?” or, “Who says so?” or, “Has this always been the case?” are more likely to result in a rich discussion which increases the sum of what students know and can therefore think about. At that point they can express their own, possibly a new understanding of what they know.

Questioning certainty and assumptions can perform a valuable service. This is the process of forming and wielding knowledge that leads to answers, insights and ever more intriguing avenues down which to pursue our thoughts. Francis Bacon said that, “Who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.” This is the point: the more we retain, the more we will learn and better the questions we can ask: a virtuous circle.

But the idea that children should be encouraged to question everything, or ask questions before they’ve understood something, is more of a vicious circle. It leads us into the fallacy that everyone’s opinion, no matter how ignorant, is of equal worth. Rather than being some sort of liberation, this is more likely to undermine any kind of secure footing and might just result in students not being sure of anything beyond the specialness of their own empty assertions.

The question is given primacy over the answer and ignorance trumps knowledge.

The teacher whose name I redacted has written a response to this post here. I have commented here.

13 Responses to What’s the starting point for all learning?

  1. julietgreen says:

    It would be good to look to biology a little more in these debates, wouldn’t it? The starting point for learning isn’t asking questions, since many creatures, including humans, learn in many contexts without any questions, real or implicit. The starting point for learning is some stimulus coupled with some behaviour. Learning is indicated by an adapted behaviour. It may be that next time you do the thing again and get better or you stop doing it because there was negative feedback. In humans we learn vast amounts by exploring our environment, like all animals. But we have culture and this involves the transmission of information from experts. If it were all about asking questions, I would imagine learning would be seriously impoverished, since our questions can only come from our own limited experience.

  2. mmiweb says:

    Julia I like your comment but I think I would (and this may just be semantic) call this an internal questioning behaviour – which might be very responsorial – can I eat this? should I run away? (and I recognised the dangers of anthropomorphism in this when thinking about non-human animal behaviour).

    As a scientist I often like to start topics / areas of enquiry from a stimulus which I provide (often dictate from the syllabus) and sometimes from an observation of their own (both of which we could call a form of knowledge). This will then lead us into an enquiry which will almost certainly include some input of knowledge from a source probably me as their teacher, possibly another source (textbook, on-line) focussed on the enquiry. As with much (f my) teaching there will be some direct instruction and some experimentation / exploration (trail and improvement) to mimic the process of “real science”, the children after all will be operating at the limits of their own knowledge.

    Whilst I want children to be asking critical questions (as you outline above) I would also want them to be asking exploratory questions that lead them into new quests for knowledge.

  3. thom gething says:

    Two small changes I made to my TOK teaching recently have been try out some different formats for my lesson objectives. Borrowing from Zoe Elder I started to use ‘so that…’ and then I have decided to complete the sentence with a question e.g. ‘We will explore the concept of false memories so that we can explore the question, “Should eyewitness testimony be used in courts?”’

    The second change is to give a greater significance to hinge questions If I get the hinge questions right I have a better grasp of how ready we are to stepping over the ‘so that…’ line.

    What I have noticed, both in the lesson and reviewing IRIS, is that by setting the question as end of the lesson (or series of lessons) I can front load the lesson with knowledge and material, which is essential if any TOK work is going to become more than superficial.

    I am not saying any of this is ground breaking, or even best practice, but I am seeing some benefit in both the discussions and the journal reflections each week. I certainly think that if we just started with questions and explored those questions learning would be slower and less substantial. Students who have strong background knowledge not only ask richer questions but develop richer answers.

  4. debrakidd says:

    Two of the first words my children said were “What’s that?” – well, it was more “wassat?” They were driven by the desire to label and name things they found interesting. Which was pretty much everything. They then, of course, like all toddlers, moved on to “Why?” It may not be that questions themselves drive learning, but that observation, curiosity and interest does. And so perhaps we need to ask ourselves what we do to pique curiosity in children?

  5. Pat Parslow says:

    I feel there are two types of “question” being conflated here – asking questions “about” a “topic”, and “questioning” the truth of an “assertion” (implicit or explicit). I also feel Julie(t)’s view relies on radical behaviourism, rather than viewing behaviour as merely being the primary (only?) way we can measure learning.
    I would tend to agree with mmiweb, and view most activities we undertake as being implicitly (or explicitly, on occasions) questioning our knowledge or assumptions about the world around us. It is useful, however, as an educator, if the students ask informed questions – apart from anything else, it gives me a framework for the type of answer I need to give. If they don’t, I need to find out more about “where they are”, and the easiest way of doing that is to ask them questions. I don’t really differentiate between me learning about the students capabilities, and the extent of their knowledge, and them learning about the subject we have to cover.
    I am not at all sure I understand the line of reasoning that suggests that asking questions about things you don’t understand leads to the primacy of the question over the answer, nor, indeed, how that is meant to lead on to the idea of all opinions having equal worth – perhaps you could “unpack” that for me?

    • David Didau says:

      Why do you think those two types of questions are being conflated? The post is very obviously about the second kind “‘questioning” the truth of an “assertion”’. Of course if a student does not understand what they have been asked to do they ought to be permitted to ask for clarification.

      As to the logic you requested be “unpacked” (why the scare quotes?) what I was trying to say was that often in a subject like English, students are told that “you can say anything” and “there’s no right answer”. This misses an important truth that there are most certainly bad answers. When we encourage children to question canonical knowledge we tell them that their opinion is as valuable as the writer’s or a literary critic’s. Of we all have the right to an opinion but that does not mean all opinions are of equal worth. An opinion – arrived at through questioning orthodoxy – but based on ignorance or superficial understand is just not as good as one based on broad knowledge about the subject.

      So, yes, we should encourage students to be critical of what we teach them, but not until they’ve had an opportunity to master the foundational knowledge and can add something worthwhile to the discussion.

      I hope that helps.

  6. J.D. Fisher says:

    I guess the original “rubbish” statement was not designed to be disagreed with publicly–only to signal the author’s values to like-minded individuals, as so much communication in education amounts to.

  7. Our school like many has those inspiring type phrases displayed randomly on the walls. ” the only dumb question is the one you didn’t ask”. I like to occasionally stand underneath it asking passing students “excuse me, is it Saturday?”

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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