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November Issue

Vol 29|No 2|November 2018

Questioning: The Real Technology

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

© iStock.com

Way back in 1995, Clifford Stoll published "Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway." He was deeply skeptical about what was happening and what was coming. Twenty-three years later, we can still identify a mixed bag of results thanks to our devices, as I outlined in September's FNO article "Looking Back and Looking Forward."

During those decades I have argued that questioning may be the most powerful technology of all. Note the article "Questioning as Technology" first published in 2002. The point deserves mentioning again as we approach 2020. The words I wrote in 2002 ring true sixteen years later:

North American schools are spending billions bringing networked computers into schools while neglecting the most important technology of all – the ability of students to make meaning by applying sharply honed questioning skills.

This article contends that questions and questioning (mindware) are critically important human technologies that might enable young people to solve problems, make smart decisions and score well on the tests of life as well all the other tests that loom in a child’s world. Without strong questioning skills, information technologies contribute little to understanding or insight. There is even some chance that they might dilute understanding and interfere with thinking.

Sixteen years later, I don't see that all that much has changed, sadly.

Bloom's Taxonomy and Questioning

For decades before and after the arrival of computers, many teachers and educational leaders have been trying to lift the bar when it comes to classroom learning activities, often pointing to Bloom's Taxonomy as a way to judge the level of thinking involved. Sadly, in many classrooms there is more shoveling than thinking.

Bloom's Cognitive Taxonomy







To master the top three most demanding levels of Bloom's (cognitive) Taxonomy -- Evaluation, Synthesis and Analiysis -- a student must have exceptionally sharp questioning skills, yet it is rare to find a school that has devoted resources to make sure all teachers possess those skills and know how to share them with their students.

While there have been serious attempts to lift the bar in the USA to meet the demands of the Core Standards, those attempts have not produced impressive results.

Most teachers have passed through pre-service training that does little to equip them to impart these thinking and questioning skills. At one point, I asked audiences how many people had received at least 2-3 hours or more of explicit training on synthesis. Usually, only one hand was raised for each 100 people in the room. Pretty sad!

Because of this informal poll, I offered a series of some 24 workshops in the USA, Australia to address this need. The focus was on synthesis and how strong questioning skills would support students' invention skills.

Synthesis is a thought process that rearranges and alters the elements of something, usually to make it better. It is central to invention and original, fresh thinking as well as problem solving. Note my article "Bettering: A Synthesis Primer."

In "Puzzling and Weaving toward Insight" I suggested three metaphors to help students understand different types of synthesis: puzzling, beading and weaving.

Because life is such a puzzle, schools should equip young ones with the skills to weave meaning and reach insight even when confronted by baffling situations, fragments and inconclusive evidence. As students try to make up their minds about challenging questions, teachers can equip them with several metaphors to illustrate the mental processs required to manage fragments, fog and confusion.

Sadly, little has been done to equip teachers with the strategies that would empower them to strengthen student questioning and thinking. The focus has been unrelenting on teaching to high stakes tests in ways that does little to promote thinking.

Capacity Building - The Neglected Change Strategy

In the USA, the so-called reform efforts of the past two administrations have been deeply flawed, concentrating on high stakes testing and fear-based change strategies rather than investing in the professional development and program development that would have made teachers more effective and would have produced significant improvement in student thinking, questioning and learning.

At the end of the previous century, progressive approaches to the improvement of instruction were thriving, until both political parties were seduced into approving the wrong-minded strategies of No Child Left Behind and both President Bush and President Obama experimented with approaches that have done very little to improve schools and learning. To the contrary, these approaches narrowed the curriculum and turned many schools, especially those of disadvantaged children, into the equivalent of factories.

Before No Child Left Behind wreaked its havock, researchers like Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers had suggested and shown effective a number of adult learning strategies that should now be dusted off and provide the basis for the capacity building schools and teachers deserve. Chief among these was peer coaching. Researchers found that sustained growth in teaching effectiveness resulted from prolonged learning of new strategies along with periodic support from partners.

Many of these approaches are summarized in my article, "Designing Staff Development for the Information Age." The main ideas are listed below, just as valid today as they were in 1991. For full definitions, consult the original article.

  1. Staff development must offer immersion and transformation.

  2. Staff development must inspire teachers to invent.

  3. Staff development must be experience-based, with learning resulting from doing and exploring.

  4. Staff development must hook the curiosity, wonder or passion of teachers.

  5. Staff development must respond to teachers' appetites, concerns and interests.

  6. Staff development must consider the feelings, fears and anxieties of the learners.

  7. Staff development must engage the perspective of teachers.

  8. Staff development must appeal to learners at a variety of developmental stages.

  9. Staff development must be properly funded.

    • Long Range Planning

    • Effective Instructors

    • A Comfortable Learning Environment

Improving Teaching and Learning
through Communities of Practice

In this decade, some of the most promising American professional development initiatives are called "Communities of Practice." Much like the peer coaching mentioned earlier, this approach encourages teachers to form into groups that will support the acquisition and refinement of instructional strategies that challenge students to perform at rigorous levels.



The Importance of Proper Funding and Time

It should be noted that effective implementation of Communities of Practice and similar initiatives must be well funded, and a district must provide substantial time for staff to meet and work together. Perhaps the best organization providing guidance as to how this might be done is Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council) which published "Establishing Time for Professional Learning" in 2013 - "a workbook designed to guide districts and schools as they develop, assess, and implement recommendations for increasing collaborative learning time for educators."

Finding time for job-embedded professional learning is one of the most frequently cited challenges with implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). With Establishing Time for Professional Learning, practitioners and education leaders use tools to identify current allocations of time for professional learning, analyze how that time is being used and what results are associated with it, and increase the effectiveness of the existing time before seeking additional time.

"A schedule is a 'thing' that can be — and should be —manipulated in ways that are best for student learning. Collaborative professional learning does not begin with plans for a schedule change, but with commitment to a cultural change," said Jack Linton, Assistant Superintendent of the Petal (Miss.) School District.

Learning Forward also provides a planning document to guide the learning process: "A cycle of continuous improvement.""

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