Sunday, November 21, 2010

To my students: Thinking vs. knowing


The difference between when I ask you a question and when you ask me a question.

It's a common enough scenario in our class: I ask you a huge question, give you no guidance or background information, and demand that you analyze, choose and defend a position on it in three minutes.  I imagine that this is frustrating for you sometimes, especially since my skills at communicating my goals are not great.

This happened on Friday, and instead of just answering the question, one of your classmates responded, and then said, "What do you think about this topic, Mr. Cosby?"

I didn't exactly deflect the question, but I didn't exactly answer it right away, either.  I think I said something about not wanting to presume to know everything, to which somebody said, "Well, you expected us to know the answer." 

It reminded me of a few days earlier, when I asked you about a camera angle in To Kill a Mockingbird.  "Why put the camera there for this scene, and why not somewhere else?"  One of your classmates asked, "Does this have a correct answer?  I like things that have correct answers."  My response to that was similar: There may well be a correct answer, the director made that decision for a reason.  I can only guess at what it was.  The better I am at the language of film, the more likely my guess is to be close to correct.

The common theme to these two scenarios, dear readers, and the theme that connects a thousand others just like them, is this:  When I ask you a question like that, it's because I want you thinking about the answers.  I want you to come up with what you think the best answer is, and I want you to defend it.  When presented with new evidence, I want you either to explain how the new evidence fits into your position, or I want you to change your position to accommodate it.  I do this because I think that this is the most reliable way for people to learn.  There's something pretty Socratic about it, and I'm not sure how I feel about that, but there you go.  That's pedagogy for you.  I don't expect you to have the right answer every time, the first time.  You often get the right answer, or at least a right answer, because you're smart.  And even when you're off-base, you quickly come to a right answer.  But for our purposes, that's sort of the cherry on the sundae.  I want you to think in as many different ways as possible, and I want you--and this is the kicker--to be aware of your thinking as you do it.

When you ask me my own questions back, there's a different dynamic.  Based on past experiences, you imagine that I have answers to all the questions I ask.  Maybe you visualize a Teacher's Annotated Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, which gives me questions to ask and themes to present.  Such things exist, and I use them when my own thinking is unclear or incomplete, or honestly, when I'm in a hurry.  So I feel like when you ask me a question, it's because you want to know the answer, and you want me to give it to you.  Your motivations are your own--I like to think you're checking your own thinking process against that of a respected local authority.  You may simply be tired of thinking.  But the point is this: When you ask me a question, it's because you want the answer.

The problem with that is the nature of the questions I ask: "What are the qualities of leadership?  What does a society owe its people, and what do leaders owe to unwilling members of a society?  How do stories and leadership relate?"  These questions have no one answer.  My objective is not for you to know how to answer them, it's for you to know how to ask them.

So, just keep thinking.  A lot of good will come of that, far beyond the limits of school.


Ray said...

Great post. School is about learning and thinking and not so much about teaching. You sir have shared with students what a great teacher does, allow them to think and learn. Thank you.

Ray said...

Great post. School is about learning and thinking and not teaching. You sir, are a great teacher; you allow your students to think and learn. Thank you.

JohnCosby said...

Thanks, as always, for the kind comments! One does one's best. Sorry about the commenting post delay--since I've invited my students to comment on this, I turned on the "Authorize Postings" feature.

By the way, Ray, I missed Veteran's Day a few weeks ago. A few weeks late, thanks for your service to our country. And thanks for continuing it in the form of your teacher leadership.