Back when I taught high school English in Buffalo a half-century ago, my friend Tom taught Spanish. He told the kids he would give them the Spanish translation for any English words. After school, a few kids came and asked the translation for curse words. He told them!
What if all schooling was like that? In other words, it was based on what the kids want to know, the questions they have. It wouldn’t be oriented to what the teachers want to say, to subjects, but to what kids want to know.
Around the time Tom was teaching kids to say dirty words in Spanish, I was fortunate enough to read a book called “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.” It was one of those great books that said everything I wanted to say, but I just didn’t know I wanted to say it yet. It suggested that a school’s job was to give kids built-in “crap-detectors.”
Another thing it said was that a teacher should never ask a question he or she knows the answer to. That would blow the act of 95% of teaching! I suppose what it meant was that school should be a place where teachers and students alike would ask and discuss questions they truly wanted to know about.
Inspired, I told my English students: “From now on, I am not going to tell you what to learn; you tell me what you want to learn.” One student summed up the problem succinctly: “For 11 years you have been telling us what we should learn and now you ask us what we want to learn. We don’t know what we want to learn!”
Unfortunately, and fortunately, that was my last year of teaching in high school. The thing that I was most proud of was to have students write “personal opinion” compositions. I didn’t “correct” them unless they wanted me to. I just wrote back my opinion about their opinion. It was a good, but tedious, way to have a conversation.
Overall, however, I quit teaching because I felt that I was boring them, and they were boring me!
For centuries, school has been “subject-based”. Students learn what other people have learned in the past. It isn’t based on how and why those who discovered that information came to discover it. They asked questions that were important to them! Why don’t we do the same? Often, it isn’t until you come to the master or doctorate level that you get to research something you are interested in.
An individual teacher can make a start. Distribute this article to your class and ask: “What do you think?” Maybe one day a month have the students write down a question about life that they sincerely want to know about. After collecting the questions, read some out loud and ask students to vote on which they would like to discuss. In my English classes, what we ended up doing was reading plays aloud, with students taking specific roles.
What if students wanted to find out about politics or religion? Talk about it!
You would never be stuck for answers. Everybody has a cell phone. You can ask Google anything! Maybe have five students summarize and share a different source. Discuss which they agree or disagree with and why. Discuss how you know you can trust a source. Since religious or political discussions can be so divisive, ask students to develop a set of rules they would agree to use, to make those discussions civil and useful.
How do we transition into having kids become “self-learners”? How could we reform the entire school system? I don’t know. Ask the students.
When my son was in the first grade, a friend of his was at our house. He asked my wife, “Mrs. Sanitate, which is more important, fact or opinion?” Imagine that – 6 years old!
Teachers, in whatever class you teach, have one day a week or month or year to discuss and discover what kids want to know. Ask them how to reform education. Not knowing the answers to these questions is exactly why we should ask them.
Should students be allowed to ask questions in school? Perhaps it’s the only thing they should be doing!
Frank Sanitate is Santa Barbara resident and a retired seminar leader who has taught seminars in every state and province in the U.S, Canada and Australia.