My students adore our vice principal, Kristi, for many reasons, but one of those mentioned the most often is because she “asks such hard questions.” Kristi never fails to get students and adults thinking, and she continues to inspire me on how to dig deeper and get more out of my students. Today though, I realized that “hard questions” should not just be reserved for students.
Before the day started, I was talking to a colleague about her displays for today’s Celebration of Learning. I mentioned how impressed I was with the student work, and she replied, “Yes, it looks good, but the students didn’t understand much. This was their first inquiry activity, and it didn’t go so well. I couldn’t believe the number of misconceptions. Many of the students said to me, We didn’t get it this time because you didn’t tell us the information. All they kept asking me for was what to do and what everything meant. Students know so much more with direct teaching.” Big deep breath, Aviva. As many of you know, I’m a firm believer in the benefits of inquiry, and have really reconsidered my instructional approaches this year to incorporate more inquiry into the classroom. I was standing in this other teacher’s classroom with my new student teacher, and I knew that this teacher was feeling frustration (and I could understand why), but this was a time that I needed to find my voice. What could I say?
And this is when I thought about the benefits of “hard questions.” You see: it’s okay to question the benefits of something when it doesn’t work, but it’s also good to reflect on why it didn’t work and what we can do differently the next time. So I did some wondering of my own. I asked what mini-lessons she tried prior to research. I asked about scaffolding options. I asked how she responded when she heard any misconceptions. I wondered about how information could be shared in small groups to help clarify understanding. I asked how guided reading might support inquiry. I asked if the students kept coming to her because they’re used to the teacher having all of the answers, and I wondered how this might change over time if she kept going with the inquiry model. Then I thought about our principal, Paul, and his amazing ability to always remain positive. So I asked about the good things. What did work well? What would you try again? How did inquiry help students retain the knowledge? How could you possibly use some of these successful components to help with the problems? We didn’t get to any definite solutions, but I heard this teacher talking to another one later in the day about other inquiry possibilities. Maybe hard questions can help plant the seeds of possibilities in adults as well as in children.
I say this for myself as well. Today I was trying to work through a teaching/learning challenge of my own. After thinking things through for a while, at nutrition break, I made the decision to talk to people that could help. They let me ask my own “hard questions.” They let me share my concerns. They listened to me. They helped put things in perspective. They asked some questions of their own, and then they gave me the time to go back, think again, plan with others, and see the new possibilities.
You see, the thing with “hard questions” is that they make people think. In my example this morning with a colleague, and in my personal experience later, solutions weren’t given. We still have to struggle and think for ourselves, but we’re just given the reason to keep struggling, to keep thinking, and to keep looking for what to do next. We all need hard questions, and we all need people to encourage us to ask these questions of ourselves and to pose them to us as well. We especially need these questions if what we’re considering impacts on students, and if changes we make, could ultimately make things better for students. How do “hard questions” help you as an educator? How do you use “hard questions” when interacting with others? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!