When Professionals Meditate on Questions

The website, “Inquire Within” has inspired me more deeply with every blog entry. The multifarious strategies illustrate what happens when teachers go beyond formulas to create rich new methods in a spirit of inquiry. The ideas are so dazzling that it is hard to take one’s eyes from them and remember that this kind of unfettered professional exploration didn’t occur by accident. Somehow the blog authors themselves felt free to explore, take risks, even defy convention in their quests to inspire curiosity in their students. How does this happen?

Working as a consultant from AUSSIE/Editure with a group of teachers at the James P. Sinnott Magnet School for Health and Health Careers, a New York City public middle school in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, I took some risks of my own to answer this question. The school is located in a decidedly poor neighborhood and has struggled over the years to find successful ways to put its students on pathways to achievement. But it was now in the second year of leadership under a new and visionary principal, Mrs. Valena Welch-Woodley, who wanted her staff to bond as a true professional learning community. A group of about ten teachers had been meeting after school on Fridays to explore methods, share ideas, and enjoy each other’s company. Many had observed that their students seemed to lack the kind of curiosity that they needed to be able to engage and persist in their studies. As the facilitator of the group, I thought it might be productive to experiment with a “quote-based seminar,” as I had come to call the process, around the idea of questions. Maybe if we wandered for a moment from the constant focus on methodology to freely explore our own thoughts, we would come back with rich and surprising ways to solve our problem.

In our meetings, we had been routinely using “writing-to-learn” techniques such as free-writes, stop-and-jots, and sum-it-ups. The teachers were used to writing as an open-ended way to discover their thinking, to sharing their writing, and to responding to the “golden lines” (words, phrases and sentences of interest) in each other’s writing. For this activity, I presented them with four quotes on the topic of questions, and invited them to pick one of the quotes, write why they picked it, and select from the quote itself a word or phrase of particular interest to share with the group.

These were the quotes:

Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom. – Grant Lichtman, The Falconer

The difference between grappling and other forms of learning is that when the questions become the students’ own, so do the answers. – Sizer and Sizer, The Students Are Watching

Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question – you have to want to know – in order to open up the space for the answer to fit. – Clay Christensen as quoted by Jason Fried on “Why Can’t Someone Be Taught Until They’re Ready To Learn?” on Farnam Street blog

Great questions have legs. They propel the learning forward. – Ron Ritchhart in Making Thinking Visible and quoted by Edna Sackson in her “Great questions have legs…” blog post on What Ed Said

What the teachers shared astounded me. I am not sure I have ever heard such poetic language rise spontaneously from any group of writers in any other context. It was as though having the opportunity to forget answers and just focus on the deep nature of questions released some kind of untapped creative force. The effect on the group was tangible. They listened to each other with rapt attention, for a moment forming an almost – and I would hesitate to say this except for the fact that it reflects some of the teachers’ language – hallowed atmosphere. The feeling for me was similar to when I hear small orchestral groups perform in harmony.

I was not able to write down all of the words they wrote and read verbatim to each other that Spring afternoon, but here are a few of their “golden lines”:

“…reflection…aha moments that lead to wisdom…”

“…engages the mind on a quest to increase knowledge…”

“…great questions lead in several directions…”

“…a space in a puzzle…”

“…Socratic style leads to discussion, rapport – leads to other questions…”

“…you’re willing to work hard for a long, long time…”

“…answers that make you halt…”

“…like a snowball rolling down a hill…”

“…an answer that satisfies your soul…”

After a moment of silence, during which I think we all allowed ourselves to appreciate the music of our thoughts, we had a seminar-style discussion. Then we assessed the process itself. These are some of the words the participants said:

“Learning is a living thing.”

“I know in my heart I’m not satisfying their curiosity.”

“One thing done in a profound manner is worth so much more than….”

“Daydreaming to wish and hope.”

“When a culture loses its time to dream, it loses its soul.”

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote in a letter of advice, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.”

We adults certainly lived our questions that day in East New York, Brooklyn. I know the students will abide in theirs more deeply as a result.

Dale Worsley

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