What’s the starting point for all learning?
“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.