To Find Questions, Promote Dissonance

First, I am honored to be invited/allowed to post on this site.  The list of collaborators is impressive and I hope I will add to the conversation over time.  When I am asked what I am good at, my only honest response is “asking questions”, so hopefully the themes of this site fit well with my own.

This post is excerpted from one I wrote a few months ago on my own blog in response to a query from some teachers about how to use the art of questioning to promote inquiry in their classrooms.

If I had to pick a single idea that I would like students to leave school having learned, it is this: find problems you care about and you will always live your passion.  Problems are created by dissonance. Problems are not bad; they are opportunities to grow and learn. Dissonance can be defined as a lack of harmony or agreement.  A musical chord is dissonant if one of the notes is not in harmony with the others.  It sounds wrong to our ears.  We want or expect to hear something sweet and harmonious; if we hear a note out of harmony, we hear dissonance.  We have a problem with the way the chord sounds, not because the sound is inherently bad or wrong, but because it does not sound the way we wanted or expected it to sound.

This, then, is the root of problems: the difference between the way something is and the way we want or expect it to be.  Real learning, whether in the classroom or the real world, occurs when an individual takes a personal stake in solving a problem that is meaningful to him or her.  The person finds a visceral, tangible difference between the world as they expect or want it to be and the world as it is. They will wrestle and prod and provoke the problem, using all of their tools and resources, until they either resolve the conflict to a point of satisfaction or just give up.  Dissonance immediately leads to questioning: we ask “why,” “why not,” and “what if” until answers of satisfactory magnitude are found that either eliminate the dissonance or decrease it to a level of acceptability.

Great teachers all do one thing well: they create dissonance in the minds of their students and guide them in the resolution of that dissonance. This is not always an easy path, particularly for young people.  There may be anxiety, timidity, or tears when the student finds out that the world is not as simple or sugarcoated as Mommy and Daddy, Grandma and the babysitter, big sister and the storyteller had led him to believe. But the process results in real learning, a growing ability to face and overcome complex obstacles for which there may be no canned answer or pretty roadmap.

In all cases dissonance, the recognition that “I” have a problem, leads first to questioning and then to growth of knowledge or experience.  The individual is directly, in some cases, passionately involved, self-interested in the outcome, in finding answers and more questions and more answers until the dissonance is reduced to an acceptable level.  This is the true process of learning.  It can be tumultuous, exciting, uplifting, rocky, enlightening, or all of them at once.

There are a number of follow-on steps in my problem-solving model, but if we don’t find the dissonance, the rest will lead us astray. The problem-solving path is one of strategy; The Art of War is filled with advice on how to tackle a problem.  But Sun Tzu never really addresses how you find your enemy in the first place; he assumes that you know your enemy.  If our enemy is a problem, that needs to be sorted out first.

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7 Responses to To Find Questions, Promote Dissonance

  1. And finding the dissonance often begins with noticing something physical–a “gut feeling” or the hairs on the back of your neck rising…


  2. Great post! One of my favorite definitions of teaching is “making the familiar strange”.


  3. Great post! It emphasises how messy and unpredictable inquiry is. Good teaching does not result from creating a series of lesson plans weeks or even a week in advance – teachers would be better off spending their time creating provocations and deciding how to create dissonance rather than investing time and effort into linear lesson plans that follow what is going on in the teacher’s head,not the students’…


    • glichtman says:

      A really important comment, Mary Collins; I think you have identified that critical link that we are trying to create between the skills of inquiry, the passion to actually inquire, and student co-ownership of learning. I have never felt that adults should let kids completely take over, but it should be a collaboration where adults help to set the framework, to define the topology of a unit, and then train students in the mechanisms to fill in that topology with their own pathways.


  4. 7weeksaway says:

    Vygotsky would call this dissonance a “crisis”. What I find most interesting is the research into how emotion effects what we do in situations of”crisis”. The strong connection between emotion and learning.


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