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Asking Questions Is Central to Project-Based Learning

A version of this article was originally published in the CACE Blog on April 3, 2017.

20 slides were projected one at a time for fifteen seconds each. I’ve seen students present under such circumstances, but this was new for me. I recently had an opportunity to deliver such a talk to a large crowd before Sir Ken Robinson took the stage at a Learning Revolution event. Because I was there as a representative of the PBL Residency, I thought I would deal with an element central to Project-Based Learning—questions.

Questions are a big deal in PBL, and I developed a greater appreciation of this fact while reflecting on my experiences as a student, as well as on my own classroom practices.

Questions have always been central to learning and teaching. But we haven’t always asked the same questions in the same ways about the same things of the same people. When we think about transforming teaching and learning in Christian schools, we will certainty have to consider how we approach questions.

I think a lot about my teaching practices. I noticed that I was doing some pretty lame things when it came to asking questions. After teaching a concept, I’d ask the class, “Do you understand?” one kid will answer, “Yes”; I took that as the whole class understanding and moved on. In reality, only 5 kids actually get it. The rest either don’t understand or they didn’t even hear the question. Sometimes I ask a question that no one answers, so we end up playing, “Guess what I am thinking now.” “It starts with the letter ‘P’…’’ When a contestant guesses correctly, I assume that the class now understands and I am free to move on.

These questions are like “sowing seeds on the sidewalk.” They don’t take root, and the birds of boredom and distraction fly away with most of them. There are ways of using questions in class that lead to student learning. When asking questions, we should remember our training: Use Think/Pair/Square, consider Bloom’s taxonomy; increase wait times. But I believe if we stuck to these best-questioning practices, we’d still be limiting the power of questions in teaching and learning.

I asked myself, “What if we dealt with questions as if they hadn’t already all been answered? What if we dealt with the big questions students are already asking?”

These questions were prompted by thoughts of my own high school experience. When I was in high school, my thoughts were dominated by movies, girls and nuclear war. It wasn’t just me; Eric asked me if I thought the world would survive till our graduation. Needless to say, we had a lot of questions about nuclear annihilation and nuclear winter.

Look at my grade 11 year: Star Wars came out and I set my sights on a beautiful and smart cheerleader to be my girlfriend, but there was also Sadat and Begin, the new Pope, SALT II, the Sandinistas, the IRA, Jim Jones, the collapse of Pol Pot and Three Mile Island. We had so many questions.

In grade 12 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and there was the revolution in Iran. The revolutionaries took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. I was in high school in the states, and, the big question the students were asking was “Why do the Iranians hate America so much.”

This question and the others everyone was asking, didn’t come up in class. We learned other things, maybe about Middle Ages, Pond Life or 1984, but I don’t remember much of them, what I still remember are the questions.

Right now, those who were in high school at the same time as I was are in charge of the world. We raised the generation of children that is ready to take over. And we make up 20% of eligible voters. What if my generation had dug into the Iranian Revolution of 1979, in 1979?

Then all that power and influence would be backed up by a far better understanding of the world. We’d know the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims. We’d understand nationalization of resources, secularization, and cultural imperialism. And a lot more. Instead, what we’ve known of Iran are simplistic images that we saw on television. That’s mainly how we still understand that part of the world. Caricatures lie behind our opinions. We have voted and talked to our children from this limited understanding.

You see, in the 70s we learned about what the teachers knew about and what was in the textbooks, which was usually the same thing. The Iran stuff was too current for us to learn about. The teachers and the texts didn’t know about them. But things have changed. Students have the information in their pockets, so this means a different role for teachers. We are needed as guides, equipping students to navigate the wonderful and dangerous paths though the forests of information in the search for answers.

What are our students wondering about? I asked my grade 9 and 12 students about their big questions. They are asking about nuclear war, mental health, gender issues, ISIS and the Refugee Crisis, GMOs, the intersection of life and faith, and a lot more.

If they dig into these questions now, how much better prepared will they be to face what their future holds, when they are the world’s leaders, or when they raise a generation and make up 20% of eligible voters?

I’m not suggesting that we stop studying the Middle Ages, Pond Life or 1984. I’m suggesting that we put these units into a context of the big questions that students are asking. Many of the big questions fit into these units—Donald Trump fits beautifully into all three.

Getting away from the “seeds on the sidewalk” questions is a no brainer. Getting into the big questions could revolutionize learning, but it might do even more. Big questions might bring us into deep questions. Our culture has been avoiding these. We prefer the less ambiguous ones we can get our heads around. But we desperately need to ask and wrestle with questions about meaning, purpose, justice, beauty and truth. Deep questions are messy, but they are the ones that matter most.

We’ve been educating for knowledge for a long time. But by also pursuing the answers to big questions students will understand their world. Which is good, but it would be truly revolutionary if we kept on going into the deep questions. We’d get more than understanding—we’d be knocking on the door of wisdom.

This is one of four CACE blog posts on Project-Based Learning. Other blogs in this series include:


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