Tuesday / April 23

Asking Bigger, More Beautiful Questions About School

One of the most delightful perks of living in a “walking community” is the treasured moments I get with my daughter, her school mates, and their parents on our walk to and from school. Most mornings you’ll find a handful of parents chatting away on the problems of the day, with a pack of bustling elementary aged kids engaged in dandelion wars. Over the course of the year, it’s been exciting to see the growth of these kids, not just in height and shoe size, but in thinking and maturity. In these final few days of making the hike (it actually is uphill both ways), I’m reminded of what a great year this has been for my daughter, and that not every child has had the same kind of engaging, uplifting experience.

We all hope that every child thrives in school—not just survives. We want to see the student who is engaged, growing, and excited to learn. But, we all know there are more than a few students who live for the weekend and their out-of-school time. These are kids like the little boy who, when asked to tame his unkempt hair, said “Don’t worry mom, it goes down when I get to school because it’s so sad.” As I walked up the hill, I recounted that story and began to wonder—what about school makes this otherwise wide-eyed, curious kid so sad about going to school?

As I thought about this, I didn’t come up with solutions, but rather, more questions. A recent experience with Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, pushed me to really think through the problem using the “Why? What If? and How?” cycle of questions, when in most cases we like to start with the “how” before we really understand the problem. I’ll start by stating my perspective and invite you to consider your own before reading further.

While there are many reasons students are reluctant, in my opinion the core issue is that they’ve gotten the message that getting the right answer (the best grade) matters more than the learning process that leads to solving problems. It is with this in mind, that I started my ‘why, what if, how’ cycle. Before you read further, you might take a minute to contemplate your own.

  • Why? – Seeking to understand
  • What if? – Speculating to come up with some possibilities
  • How? – Starting to solve the problem

When I first approached these questions, with my core belief in mind, I’ll admit, my questions were narrow and quite frankly, not any good. The questions started something like this:

  • Why is there so much angst surrounding tests?
  • What if kids’ (and teachers’) abilities weren’t reduced to one test, on one day, given in one format?
  • How might we create an environment where students are challenged (at the right level), as well as supported in their learning growth?

And, when I read these questions again, I realized that my own questions were leading me down a specific path (that testing is the enemy). The reality is that testing is not the problem; the challenges go beyond the test. So, I took another try at crafting some beautiful questions.

Why are so many students bored, uninterested, or disengaged at school?

I bet the answer varies dramatically from district to district, and school to school, within the same district. Ask ten people and you’re likely to get ten different answers. Whether it is the teacher quality approaches to testing, student insecurity, parent engagement, or something else, it is important to start with the “why”? It’s probably also important to be sure everyone is clear on the terms. What does it mean to be disengaged, bored, uninterested? How do we define “so many”?

Once we have a better sense for the problem we’re trying to tackle, we can take the next step—speculating on some possible solutions, holding each loosely, as we become more intimate with the complex challenge of educating our children. Let’s explore a ‘what if’? around engagement.

What if school was so engaging that kids begged to go, even on the weekends?

Now, it’s not my intention to say we need more hours of schooling each week. Think about it: if we change nothing else, all we get is students who are disengaged for more hours each week. Instead, I’m asking, why is it that we see such a distinction between “fun” and “learning?” It seems like educators declare that learning is fun, but in reality, an environment where kids mechanically get through the day, meeting some end goal defined and controlled by the adult at the head of the class, better describes the environment. Of course, this isn’t the case in all classrooms, but after talking with educators across various well-recognized, high achieving districts, it seems like there is a dirty little secret in education. These teachers (and administrators) are thrilled to be educating in high performing districts; and at the same time, distraught that the focus on achievement (test results) sacrifices things that are less measurable, but critical to growing and preparing our youth for an uncertain future.

In one conversation, I was befuddled by an educator’s description of the new after school program for the entire district. As he described the academic components, he said “This program is different. It is not about supervising kids, prodding them to get their homework done. We are focused on educational programming, where the kids will be having so much fun, they won’t even know they are learning.” This struck me, and made me wonder—why can’t most days in the classroom resemble that vision?

Somehow, we’ve gone off course. We’ve found ourselves in the mode of setting achievement bars, suggesting that each kid in the each grade should grow at the same pace in math, writing, and reading and we lose sight of just how unnatural that expectation really is. It may be convenient to expect all kids to achieve at some same minimum level in all subjects; but, how realistic is that, really? For some reason we believe all third graders are the same, yet when we get to our careers, we’re all different. If we went back to third grade expectations, it would be like saying we should expect a novelist and an engineer to have similar reading, writing, and math skills.  As we think about preparing students for the world they will face, let’s look at a ‘how might we?’.

How might we create an environment where students are not only engaged, but also set the pace for their learning, while continuously growing?

The pressure these days is enormous. Students are acutely aware of how they do on each assignment and test, sometimes pushed well beyond their current capacity. When the bar is set out of reach, or under-reach, performance and growth suffer. Teachers are riddled with requirements to differentiate, give multiple options to demonstrate learning, push for deeper learning. All well-intentioned messages, but at the end of the day contrary to what counts—the test(s) (that are standardized by the way—so much for differentiating learning!). What if there were another way, besides standardized tests?

Besides the stress and anxiety that comes with the test day(s), we wait month for results. What if, instead of waiting for the results of a single test on a given day, our tests provided instantaneous feedback that guided the instruction for that week? Imagine for a moment, a teacher who gives a test that’s not a fixed number of questions, in a fixed amount of time, but instead gives students 7 or 10 questions, where students choose the two questions that are interesting and they want to know the answer? Maybe this approach will work; maybe it won’t. We could dismiss it; or we can experiment with it.

The point isn’t about getting the right answer. When it comes to complex problems, experts Garvey-Berger and Johnston suggest, “The core work isn’t to find the one best or root cause of anything or to predict which change is going to make the biggest difference. It’s to experiment thoughtfully and learn like mad.” Experimenting allows us to generate and explore a whole new set of questions, led by curiosity, pushing each other to challenge assumptions (the invisible blinders we each wear unwittingly).

Bigger, More Beautiful Questions

Just as we tend to skip to the ‘how,’ too often we approach problems with the answer in mind; a slippery slope that often leads us to solve the wrong problem. If we want to make an impact in our schools, we need to make it safe to dive into the complexity; invite each other (teachers, administrators, parents) to lead with our questions. This is, well, a big ask.

Most of us know how to ask questions and we often get information we need (or think we need). However, as Alyssa Gallagher and I previously wrote, the majority of our questions open up only a limited solution space, designed by the question asker. However, it is far more important to employ different kinds of questions, the ones that build a learning approach to solving complex problems. Even those of us who consider ourselves pretty adept at asking big, beautiful questions, get lured into our own set of assumptions and miss something bigger. That’s where I was initially headed in this article. But in taking a step back, an opportunity to explore bigger, more beautiful questions is presented. The point of these questions is not to solve things but instead, be curious, creating thoughtful experiments that help us better understand the complexities, creating a multitude of possibilities.

Educators are the lynchpin of embracing and fostering this curiosity. We need to help start the day with “crazy hair” that is excited to learn! The path is not lonely. Engage others with your curiosity; curiosity is what sparked this piece. As the school year comes to a close and our walks go on hiatus, I’m excited to explore ways to continue and deepen the conversation throughout the summer. Please consider this your invitation to ask big, beautiful questions—challenging assumptions and enabling each of us (adults and kids) to be better equipped to handle all of life’s complexities.

Written by

Elise Foster, co-author of The Multiplier Effect and Multipliers Master Practitioner, is a leadership coach who enables leaders to unlock the full potential of their people. She brings her systems engineering mindset to bear as she invites leaders to bring out the best in everyone around them.

Latest comments

  • Oops, — correction, “can we do this everyday??” not every summer! 🙂

  • Really fantastic article that really got me thinking, “why?” and “why not?” about so many of our practices in education. A great case for bring the fun back to learning.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Liz! Continues to have me thinking, especially when I have daughter who came home from Science Olympiad camp today, saying “this was the most fun ever! can I do this everyday this summer?!?!” Makes me wonder – what’s the difference between summer camps and school? Why might one be better? Or why not?

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