Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Ubiquitous Question – a reflection on learning

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Mirroring the Question - artist ken allan
“. . . 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?”
This sort of discourse assists me to learn about how I feel. It can figure how the day that’s just beginning can become a part of my life. So yes, my assumption about asking questions still works. Even if I learn nothing of what’s happening outside my head, I can learn something about myself.

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?

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


Tania Sheko said...

We seem to be on the same wavelength, Ken. I've also been grappling with the question of learning and how it happens. This is such an interesting post and contains many fertile questions to get the reader's learning happening. I agree with you when you say 'not achieving is hardy unequivocal evidence that learning hasn’t happened'. And also that we have constant dialogue in our heads anyway, which makes me wonder why some people/students are reluctant to voice these questions is they're relevant to the conversation. I think many people are still unsure whether their questions will make them look silly; they're unsure of their validity. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Rick Biche said...

One of our assessments asks kids to predict which object will float based on density calculations. I have watched many students get the answer right, then wrongly assume that anything that is heavy will sink. Misconceptions are hard to unlearn.
Truly authentic learning would not require the teacher to ask any form of artificial questions, the learning would be obvious from the products the students produced. But misconceptions are hard to unlearn. And teachers continue to do what they have done, at least on some level. Our current accountability systems certainly do not help this either.
In a world where the answer to most questions is a remembered fact, I have often wondered how to get a handle on student’s creative thinking/problem solving processes. Questioning, as a skill (verbal, non-verbal) and metacognition (to be aware that one asked a question in the first place) have seemed to me to be legitimate measures of thinking. I have also thought that the depth of a question might be proportional to understanding of an idea. Of course now I am wondering how to measure that. I will resist asking a question.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā kōrua!

Kia ora Tania!

I believe thinking and learning relevantly are intricately meshed together. A consequence of this is the number of posts related to thinking that I have bashed out since I started blogging. It's a fascinating area for discussion.

My experience in the classroom in New Zealand is that there can often be cultural barriers to learners asking questions.

In a class of Māori learners, for instance, it pays to recognise that there may well be a hierarchy or pecking order, which is why so often it is found that one or perhaps two learners in a class are the ones who always ask the questions first, followed by the others hierarchically. This of course is in addition to all the other possible barriers that learners may have when asking questions.

All fascinating stuff!

Tēna koe Rick!

I agree with what you say about misconceptions being hard to unlearn. I think unlearning can be as difficult as learning. It involves similar processes. But a concept learnt wrongly can't be fixed like adjustments made to a wrongly assembled auto-mobile engine for learning is complex, not complicated.

I wonder about so-called authentic learning and the artificial questions you speak of. Education is about mind development. And while it is true that 'authentic' learning of relevant and interesting matter, a lot of that can be highly subjective.

I admit that this subjectivity so often involves the learner.

Perhaps one of the most abstract subjects I've studied is Mathematics. As I watch my children grow and study Art, I realise there are as many abstract ideas in that discipline too. I didn't study Art, at least not formally, but I've a keen interest there. What this brings to me as an educator is a realisation that relevance and interest are also subjective parameters.

I've studied music since I was 5 years old and play a series of instruments. It's only recently that I have realised the usefulness (to me) that music brings to all that I have learnt outside that discipline. There are so many fuzzy areas, it is often difficult for me to really identify where music stops and my other interests begin.

Relevance, interest and importance to the learner are always going to be in the mind of the educator.

Catcha later