“. . . unless you speak up... you will not be learning . . .”
I often wonder if our current education systems drive us to make invalid assumptions about how learning happens. I’m talking about educators here, not necessarily members of their learning communities.
Curious though it may seem, I learnt lots as I bumbled my way through high school. Not because I was especially able or bright.
I had an annoying knack of being outspoken when I couldn’t understand things. I hated not knowing what was going on. I asked questions.
The teaching moment
Fortunately, I had good teachers. They recognised the teaching moments that I presented to them – on a plate. I gained the respect of my teachers, probably solely because of this attribute of asking questions, for I certainly wasn’t a model student.
Good teachers admire learners who ask pertinent questions. It makes them feel wanted. Hence their intolerance of impertinence, I guess.
Asking a question offers a teacher the opportunity to fulfil that so-often-difficult-to-attain goal of the pedagogue. The goal is to teach relevantly. While it’s true that learners tend to engage more in learning when they interact during a ‘lesson’, I’m not so sure that speaking up or even asking a question is necessarily exclusive for learning to occur.
Questions and answers
One dated definition of education is ‘the ability to learn from a book’
(this implies the educated is still learning). You can’t ask a book a question. Today, we like our educated learners to learn from the Internet, using searches, networking and the like.
It’s presumed that these media permit the learner to ask questions. The belief persists that asking a question – or even just speaking up – is so very necessary for learning to occur.
I’ve always thought of thinking as a stream of thought statements and questions, asked and possibly answered in the mind. My assumption is that a thinker asks questions of herself or himself and that’s what initiates further thinking.
Lying in bed, just awake, on a Saturday morning, having no plan pending for the unfolding day, my thoughts might go something like this:
- “Shall I get up now? Or will I just lie here blissfully embalmed in the cosy bedding for half an hour?
I wonder what the weather’s like? Perhaps I could get the garden dug? Or maybe give the shed that coat of paint?
Ah, but isn’t it nice to lie in on a Saturday morning?”
Assumptions on learning
So why do teachers assume that no learning happens without questions being asked? I think they are referring to what I call active questions, spoken or entered in a txt or email, or other such method of communication between two or more people. There is an assumption that the question has to be aired. But I am puzzled at how the idea fits with learning from a book.
It’s a point of view I’ve come across before, that of the lurker who never engages, never interacts and never asks questions. The inference is that the lurker never learns.
This is not the opinion of Nonnecke and Preece, who actually coined the phrase, Silent Participants for learners who lurk. They claim that learning can take place despite no participation from the learner. My own experience aligns with their research findings.
Etienne Wenger refers to community members who do not speak up as Legitimate Peripheral Participants. He recognises that learning happens even if the participation is only peripheral, that is to say, the learners don't speak up.
Teaching, learning and assessment
Teachers are geared to assessment. Often they feel compelled to possess written evidence that a learner has reached an objective before they are convinced the objective has actually been learnt.
Assessment is forced participation on the part of the learner. Without engagement at the time of assessment, it could be construed that nothing can be achieved in an assessment test. Yet not achieving is hardly unequivocal evidence that learning hasn’t happened.
A principle upheld by designers of resources for distance learning is that if the student hasn’t been asked a question about a learning objective, and responds with the correct answer, the objective hasn’t been learnt. Prompting the learner to respond in this way gives the teacher an opportunity to record that learning has occurred. It tends to subscribe to the tick-box mentality, but, at least, it is a recordable event.
Questioning a way to learn
I’m not entirely opposed to the suggestion that questioning is a way to learn. Nor am I questioning the idea that learners will learn nothing if they don’t ask questions. My hunch is that questions are asked in the mind all the time. The trick of learning relevantly lies in asking the right questions.
Students who always have questions, and put them, will learn. They can ask them out loud or online, to a teacher or to another learner. Or they can ask them in their own mind. As long as learners keep asking questions, there will be answers given in return and they can learn from those. This is especially the case if learners know a thing or two about metacognition, even if they don't know the word.
Do learners have to ask their questions directly? To a teacher, for instance? Do you think learners will not learn unless they speak up? Or can they learn without asking questions? What’s your take on learning and participation?