10 January 2010

Answering questions with questions...

Do we teach our students to answer questions with questions?

Why not?

On Sunday morning @courosa asked on Twitter, "how many countries can you name in 5 minutes? http://is.gd/60P5G"

"What do you mean by country?" I asked in return, "UN, FIFA, other?"

A little later @AltEdAdventures asked, "I named 41. Am I blind, or was England/Great Britan not an accepted country?"

Is Wales a country? Scotland? England? Somaliland? Puerto Rico? Great Britain? Catalonia? Northern Ireland? Palestine?

"FIFA," says Wikipedia, "has 208 member associations, which is 16 more than the United Nations and three more than the International Olympic Committee, though five fewer than the International Association of Athletics Federations."

According to the United Nations - or the US State Department - there is a nation off the northwest coast of Europe called "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland." Nearby is a nation called "The Republic of Ireland." According to FIFA, the international soccer organizing group, there are at least five nations there: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Ireland, each of whom compete under their own national flag, play their own national anthems. If you ask the Irish government, constitutionally, they will tell you that there are two nations: Great Britain and Ireland, with part of Ireland being occupied by Great Britain and still awaiting the re-unification plebiscite scheduled for 1925. If you ask the Irish government, officially, the answer will leave you baffled as they try to describe something both unacceptable yet fully accepted.

And what of Somaliland? An independent, functioning, self-governing nation since 1991 that no one officially recognizes.

What of Catalonia? A "nation" with its own language, culture, very distinct history, even a "not-recognized-by-FIFA-but-they-can-play" national soccer team?

Of course, then, there's Palestine.

So the child faced with the "name the countries" question or the "fill out the map" worksheet needs to ask, not answer. That new question - "What do we mean when we say "country" or "nation"?" is the really valuable topic, in a way a list of memorized names will never be. And it will introduce students to the vast differences in the ways of human thinking. The child in London understands "country" quite differently than the child in Kansas City, and neither is right. Just as "democracy" is different for the child in Dublin than the child in Boise. Just as "border" means one thing in Texas and something else in Pakistan or Yemen. Even when we start adding 2+2 different cultural rules come into play. If we ignore this, we are training our students in ignorance.

This isn't post-modernism run amok. Rather, it is training our students to understand the complexities of the world. It is essential. Hell, even business schools now understand this.

So next time you ask a question, don't look for an answer, look for the questions which challenge our knowledge of our world. That's real education.

- Ira Socol


David Peter said...

The real question is, are we teaching/modeling critical reflection? We can teach or encourage questions as answers, but without critical reflection, are we developing success?

concretekax said...

Answering David's question, I do not think that we teach this way hardly ever. Instead we model that every question asked by the teacher has a "right" answer that students need to guess or figure out. From a young age I think we teach students to not be inquisitive and ask questions, but to conform to the pre-determined answers.

Derek Bruff said...

Great post. Right in line with work by Perry and others about stages of intellectual development. Many students often think that questions have single correct answers, answers that should be memorized.

Others, noting that experts can disagree about things like the country question, take the stance that there are no right answers--that everything's totally subjective. I can see your points about the subjective nature of the definition of country leading some students in that direction. It's important to help students understand that some definitions of country (to continue your example) may be better than others in certain contexts. That's where the real critical thinking comes in.

That being said, @courosa's original question is still a useful one to ask students, at least as formative assessment. Finding out that, for instance, one's students can't list many African nations or countries in the Middle East is useful information, since it points the way to future teaching directions. The question as an end point might have limited use, but as the starting point of something else (like your own response), it's very useful.

irasocol said...


I think we all too often teach for the pre-determined, scantronable, answer. That's the "road to hell" as Yong Zhao has been saying lately.


I'm not saying "base knowledge" is a problem. Indeed, it is a strength. I have a Portuguese friend who tells her MSU undergrad students that they "better be able to at least list the nations their nation has conquered." Though I doubt the "timed test" is anything but a parlor game. I can name a lot of nations, but I'd do it visually, moving around the globe - not quickly or automatically.

But, you are right. It is not just "there are multiple answers." It is the "why" there are multiple answers, and how we decide. I had one "distinguished Ivy League faculty member" get very angry with me on a list serve a few years ago because I challenged him on making references to "the English government" - and, as we know - though there are Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish governments, there is no English government. But if we are discussing sense of nationality, English nationhood is an important idea. And Somaliland, well, that gets into that whole Wilson v Lincoln question, right? Who decides if a nation is a nation?

So even when we say, "in this situation this definition is better," we still must know the limits we create through that definition. When we get that kind of conversation going, we're really getting to the critical thinking we need.

- Ira Socol

Megan said...

I am going to save this post and refer people to it when they ask why let students choose to represent the UK, Wales, Scotland, England, South Vietnam etc in our annual UN week parade of nations.
Canadian International School (Singapore)