The Best Thing I've Read in a Very, Very Long Time

It’s all trivial — your grouse, my hermit, Bernard’s Byron. Comparing what we’re looking for misses the point. It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.  Otherwise, we’re going out the way we came in.  That’s why you can’t believe in the afterlife, Valentine.  Believe in the after, by all means, but not the life.  Believe in God, the soul, the spirit, the infinite, believe in angels if you like, but not in the great celestial get-together for an exchange of views.  If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final.

~Hannah Jarvis, in Arcadia by Tom Stoppard.

I saw Arcadia on Broadway about a month ago.  I read the play the past couple days.  It was so good it almost made me want to cry.  My wife was totally justified in the mean look she gave me when I told her I hadn’t heard of it.  It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read, and I can’t wait to have the chance to teach it. (Frank Noschese already does in his science class).

One of the best pieces of teaching advice I ever got was “never ask a question you know the answer to” (Thanks, Becky!).  When we teach students what we already know, to some degree, we’re wasting time.  The answers are there, after all, in the book, so why bother having the student come up with them?  If only we could all just struggle on in our classrooms, even if knowing that failure is the final end. It’s the wanting, it’s the desire, that makes the contemplative life worth living, not the right answer.

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9 thoughts on “The Best Thing I've Read in a Very, Very Long Time

  1. Do you really, really believe that statement about wasting time teaching students what you already know? I think I understand what you are trying to say – push the students in new directions. Is that what you were trying to say? Because we *must* teach students things we know.

    Unless you don’t know anything useful.

    I apologize if it feels like I am picking on you but in the course of a week on Twitter, I see a fair amount of this kind of truisms spouted. I think we need to call BS on some of them. Its one of the things that makes us teachers sound a little lame to parents.

    Because I am pretty sure the parents expect you to teach their kids some useful stuff.

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    1. Yeah – not the most thoughtful elucidation of my thoughts ever. I never write in truisms, and I just need a nice taste of idealism after a rough couple of weeks.

      With that said, I stand by the idea at the root. If all we do in school is pass on knowledge that already exists, I’m not really sure what the point is. I don’t say this because I don’t think knowledge should be passed on, but rather, we can give students books to read and movies to watch to accomplish that goal. Where I can truly add value (pun very much intended), is in my ability to help students question and move in new directions. I certainly think students should learn things we know, I just question the point of the teacher being the one to pass that on, as opposed to facilitating the students own investigation of it.

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  2. Yeeks. Never ask a question you know the answer to? Damn Steve. I know the answer to almost 100% of the questions I ask. And they are still worth asking. The aphorism makes sense for a lawyer, or in a debate, but not in the classroom, at least not mine.

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  3. Having slept on it, I realize there are a bunch of difficult questions that I do not know all the answers to in advance: “What mistakes do you think someone else might make on this problem?” or “Which step do you think is the trickiest? Why?” “How would you explain this to someone who knows less math than you?” In these, and a bunch more, I ask them to assess their own work and their own executive control over problems. Even there, though, I have ideas in mind.

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    1. I’m not sure how much that lesson can apply to your math class. In the Humanities though, I stand by the statement. I should have been more clear though, that advice applies only to questions asked verbally in class. This would not apply to reading or written work. The statement implies that what is done in class time needs to have more value than just binary right and wrong answers.

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      1. What questions will you ask Wednesday (or did you ask last Friday) that you did not know the answers to? I am feeling fairly skeptical, so something concrete might help.

        And do you mean that kids phrase the answers in their own way, as they assimilate, synthesize? Or that you really don’t know what the content of the answers will be?

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  4. Ahh, that does make more sense – humanities over science and math. I was definitely speaking from a science perspective – I am a uni professor who deals with hundreds of incoming freshmen every semester. I see a lot of students without basic science skills and knowledge and sometimes, that is because the HS teachers are trying to teach higher order learning before the student has the lower level processes mastered in chemistry. We do seem to have lost our track on how to deal with students in 9-12. I think it is because we are trying to get everyone ready for college – when many are not yet ready to handle some of the thinking needed. Of course, they all will handle it in time, just on their time table, not ours. That is, if we work with them and help them where they are, rather than where we need them to be!

    Sorry, just a start-the-day ramble. Nothing to see here.. move along.

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  5. The most recent question I asked that led to some real work was: “To what extent was the French Revolution successful?” Of course I have answers in mind, but this is a question historians argue about to this day. Now, in order to answer that question, there are lots of things you and I know that students need to apply (and I grade them for the extent to which they include that information).

    The original advice was actually more a recommendation against student-centered constructivism to the extreme. I had this whole lesson where I had 45 minutes worth of questioning leading students to define the term “heroification” on their own. I was told that was a waste of time (which is would have been); just give the students the definition and let them start applying the terms to history.

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  6. I know it sounds hyperbolic, but I’m really willing to push it. NEVER ask a question in class to which you already know the answer. It’s a goal that might not be achievable, but it’s exactly the right goal. A question to which you already know the answer is not a real question. It’s not a question that leads to active thinking, ever. It’s a “guess what’s in the teacher’s head” question. Those questions provide an illusion of thought, an illusion of interaction, an illusion of active learning. There is no learning that comes from that kind of question–at least no valuable learning.

    If you know the answer, say the answer. Just tell them. Don’t play guessing games. Or if you want students to say the answer for themselves, tell them to say the answer. Don’t disguise an instruction as a question. If you want students to think, to learn, ask questions which require them to do that, not questions which require them to fill in the blank.

    I’ll agree that this rule only applies to class discussion, to verbal questions, not to tests or quizzes. A question where the teacher has the answer in mind already and is just trying to get the student to say it IS a quiz question. That’s ALL it is. I won’t agree that the rule is any less true for science or math than it is for the humanities, or any less true for students in high school, or elementary school, than it is for college students. Discussion is such a valuable and powerful tool for learning. But discussion is not quizzing. (This is not to say that quizzing is valueless. Just that it’s not discussion.)

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