Thursday, July 31, 2014

How to ask a question (?) (!) (?)

The following is a excerpt from the article "Active Learning in the Halakha class" by Mark Smilowitz, which first appeared in the Lookstein Center's journal Jewish Educational Leadership:
Classically, teachers and students alike tend to view questions as stemming from problems; if nothing bothers you, you don't ask. Even progressive methods devised to make students active learners through questioning seem to view questions as stemming from problems. For example, the "inquiry training" model relies on presenting students with puzzling events that will naturally arouse their curiosity and stimulate their questions. This approach "deliberately selects episodes that have sufficiently surprising outcomes to make it difficult for students to remain indifferent to the encounter.

Perhaps you've seen a science exhibition where they put a blown up balloon into liquid nitrogen, and it comes out shrunk. The kids are naturally stimulated to ask why it does that, because the outcome is surprising. This is precisely the kind of curiosity-generating activity that would kick off a unit in the inquiry training approach.

But let's consider another way to stimulate curiosity. Take a regular balloon, a normal object that doesn't automatically generate questions, and hold it up in front of a classroom as is, and tell students they have two minutes to write down as many questions as they can think of that will help them understand the balloon better. Tell them not to hold back, but to let their imaginations go.

When I do this experiment on myself, I find that I suddenly become interested in things I wasn't interested in before – science questions such as why balloons lose their air after a while, manufacturing questions like how balloons are made, or maybe economic questions like how do they decide how much balloons cost. When one is prompted in this manner, instead of curiosity generating questions, it is the discipline of questioning that generates the curiosity. We might refer to this latter kind of question as a research-oriented question, as opposed to a problem-based question, because asking this kind of question is often the key to researching a topic

My guess is that most students only know about problem-based questions and are never taught to ask research-oriented questions. Neil Postman expressed his “astonishment at the neglect shown in school toward” the art of formulating questions. “All our knowledge results from questions, which is another way of saying that question asking is our most important intellectual tool. I would go so far as to say that the answers we carry about in our heads are largely meaningless unless we know the questions which produced them.”

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