One of the things I tried to instill in my students was a simple idea that I took away from a class I took one summer back when I was teaching at St. Mary’s in the late 60s. The summer session course, presented by Dr. Alfred DiVito and underwritten by the National Science Foundation, not only taught teachers the scientific method, but, more importantly, the inherent value of curiosity.
The first day of class Dr. DiVito divided the class into groups of four and then handed each group a cigar box that had been taped shut. Returning to the front of the room he stepped to the blackboard and turned a poster around that had been standing in the chalk tray. It read as follows:
The Scientific Method
Ask a Question
Do Background Research
Construct a Hypothesis
Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
Communicate Your Results
He gave a brief introduction to the scientific method and then explained to us that science in its entirety is completely dependent on Step 1. Steps 2 through 6 have no meaning or purpose if they are not preceded by a question. He then asked us to consider the box we had before us and prodded us to start asking questions. Two obvious ones came to the forefront.
“Why are the boxes taped shut?” one student asked.
“Why do you think they’re taped shut?” DiVito responded.
“What’s inside the box?” asked another.
“Apart from opening it, how might you go about determining that yourself?” he responded.
It was only natural for everyone to feel a little discomforted by Dr. DiVito’s evasive responses but it soon dawned on everyone that all he was really doing was motivating us to not only ask questions but find ways to answer them on our own. As the exercise progressed we all found ourselves asking even more questions.
- Did the object make a discernible sound when the box was shaken?
- Did the sound of the object reveal anything about it?
- Did it’s movement tell us anything about it’s shape?
- Did the object slide?
- Did it roll?
- Did it do both?
- Did the sound tell us anything about the object’s weight and/or density?
- Did the angle of the box affect the speed at which the object moved from one end to the other?
- Did the object’s movement tell us anything about its length and/or width?
In the end almost every group succeeded in identifying the various objects in their boxes doing nothing more than asking questions and then, using the power of observation, answering them.
The primary lesson I took away from the course is one that I took to heart. Learning is best derived from one’s own curiosity.
Later in life, after years in the military, private and public sectors, I also came to the conclusion that apart from politicians and old money the people who continually ask questions are the ones who eventually rise to the highest positions of legitimate authority.
Put another way: The people who rule the world are those who pursue the answers to their own questions, not the people who waste their lives answering someone else’s.
* * *
Twenty some odd years later when I taught 5th and 6th grade at Hyatt Elementary in Riverside, California I tried to instill that sense of curiosity in my English and math classes.
As a matter of routine, every day opened with a half hour writing exercise. I’d give the kids a topic and then stand in front of the room answering the questions they would have about spelling, vocabulary, and usage. I had only two rules. The first rule required them to do everything in their power to minimize the use of the forms of the verb be, i.e., is, are, was, were, be, being and been. The second was that if they did not know how to spell a word, they were to ask and I would write the word on the blackboard.
As days turns to weeks, and weeks to months, the quality of their writing improved exponentially and the quality of their questions morphed from simple spelling to a myriad of language related issues, e.g., synonyms, antonyms, acronyms, tense, declination, and a vastly expanded vocabulary. It was immensely satisfying to see that when a question was asked and answered, a good share of the class would not only attend to what was being discussed, they’d incorporate what they’d just learned about in their own writing for the day.
Even more gratifying was the response I’d get from my students in math classes when I’d present activities designed to generate curiosity. As an example, I’d break the class into groups of three and hand each group a piece of paper containing a price list of ten items for sale at the local grocery store. The list was followed by the following limiting factors.
- To get to the store and get home they would have to ride the bus and a bus ticket cost $1.50 each way.
- Each student would be given a $20 bill.
- They would be charged a 10% sales tax on all purchases.
- As a group, you have 30 minutes to generate as many questions as you can related to the aforementioned list using the three limiting factors.
In bold letters beneath the tasking read:
- IT IS IMPORTANT YOU NOT WORRY ABOUT THE ANSWERS TO YOUR QUESTIONS. AT THIS POINT, THEY ARE IRRELEVANT.
As time passed, I believe the kids became far more engaged in mathematics because they not only found the idea of asking questions invigorating, it eventually lead most to want answers which was the unstated objective of the exercises in the first place.
I have to wonder what the state of education would be if educators were trained to spend less time asking questions than answering them.