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Let’s stop asking this question

Posted in the following categories: Creativity, Personal Development

Osmosis is the process by which molecules pass through a semipermeable membrane in order to balance concentrations. 

I was pacing back and forth in my tiny room, memorizing one concept after the next for my high school biology exam. Pacing put me in a trance of sorts, allowing the semipermeable membrane that is my brain to absorb molecules of information that I was supposed to learn.

But I wasn’t learning anything. I was regurgitating a string of meaningless words that defined osmosis, but I had no idea what those words actually meant. I didn’t know what made a membrane semipermeable (as opposed to completely permeable) or how in the world molecules knew to balance concentrations.

Other classes were no different. In the chemistry lab, there was one right outcome that our “experiment” was supposed to produce. If we didn’t get that outcome—if the experiment produced something unexpected—there was no room for curiosity. It meant we had performed the experiment incorrectly and had to repeat it until we got it “right,” while our classmates trekked off to the movies.

Most schools believe they are in the business of transmitting knowledge. The teacher transmits knowledge by “covering” the “content” of the course. The student absorbs knowledge and regurgitates it on a standardized exam.

We learn about Newton’s “laws” as if they arrived by a stroke of genius, but not the years he spent exploring, revising, and tweaking them. The laws that Newton failed to establish—most notably his experiments in alchemy, which attempted, and spectacularly failed, to turn lead into gold—don’t make the cut as part of the one-dimensional story told in physics classrooms. Instead, our education system turns the life stories of these scientists from lead to gold.

“Children enter school as question marks,” writes Neil Postman, and “leave as periods.” Instead of asking their own questions and figuring out their own answers, students are forced to memorize someone else’s answers to someone else’s questions. They are rewarded for thinking like the teacher, thinking like the school board, or thinking like the textbook author—not thinking for themselves or questioning what they learn.

Standardized exam booklets should have the words “Let’s pretend” inscribed in big block letters on the cover, just so everyone is aware of what’s about to take place.

Let’s pretend that the questions on this exam are important.

Let’s pretend there’s one single, absolutely right answer to every question.

Let’s pretend that the answer has been determined by someone far smarter than you.

Let’s pretend that the answer is fixed for all time.

A typical question in this game of “Let’s pretend” might be “Who discovered America?” A question like this closes off inquiry by demanding a one-dimensional, Eurocentric answer like “Christopher Columbus.”

Yet a far more interesting question might be, “How do you discover who discovered America?” That question leads to even more questions: What does “discover” mean? Weren’t there millions of people already living in America when the Europeans arrived? Were the native people always here? If not, how did they arrive? By foot? By boat? From where?

Which brings me to the title of this post.

Let’s stop asking “What did you learn in school today?” That question perpetuates the outdated conception of education where the only purpose of school is to teach students the right answers.

Instead, let’s ask, “What did you disagree with today?,” “What questions are you curious about?,” “How would you figure out the answer?,” or any other question designed to get students to think for themselves and to put a question mark at the end of conventional wisdom.

We live in the Information Age, not the Industrial Age. A willingness to reimagine conventional wisdom is more important than the ability to regurgitate it.

P.S. If you enjoyed this post, you’d love Neil Postman’s 1971 book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

P.P.S. What questions would YOU ask students to get them to think for themselves? Let me know through my contact page.

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