Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Power of Questions

Generate questions!

Project-based learning (PBL) and inquiry-based learning (IBL) begin with a driving question, one that hopefully excites students and gets them started on their path to learning. The driving question is the first part of the PBL/IBL process to create important needs: a need to gather information that will answer the question and a need to develop skills necessary to produce a beautiful product that both exhibits that knowledge and has impact in the world.

Passover, which Jews are in the midst of celebrating now, is a holiday in which we highlight questions. The Seder gets a big, inquiry-based start with the four questions, the mah nishtana. The Seder is all about engaging children in the story of the Exodus narrative and getting them to participate in the drama and experience of the departure from Egypt and the redemption of the Israelite people. The Haggadah is set up so that the children's engagement begins with asking questions.

The Four Questions page from Arthur Syzk's
famous Haggadah from the early 20th century, Poland
The truth is that throughout history, the Jewish people have understood that asking questions creates curiosity and a desire to learn. Jewish exegetes left no angle of the Biblical texts unquestioned, and the Talmudic approach to learning is to ask questions; often answers aren't as important as the discussions that questions engender, and a Beit Midrash -- a Jewish place of study -- is filled with discourse, dissent, and disparate approaches to text and Jewish law. Inquiry leads to vigorous exploration of text and law, true, but also ultimately what it means to be Jewish.

We've been thinking more deeply about the role questions play in education because recently -- and especially over Passover -- , we've been reading A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. See the book trailer below:

The book shows the power that asking questions can have in changing the status quo and getting us to think differently about . . . well, just about everything.

Before Passover vacation, we had a chance to ask students in a sophomore English class who had read A Doll's House to look at the play and connect it to another work they'd studied this year. The sophomores then had to ask a big question about their connection. Here are two student responses that made us realize how powerful it can be to get students formulating questions.

We like the way Jonah connected his learning to Passover and the notion of freedom:

In comparison to _Little Bee_, _A Doll's House_ also has the theme of freedom. Both women, in the novel and play, quest for freedom. Little Bee, of the eponymous novel, left her troubles behind in Nigeria to seek out refuge and freedom in England. Nora, of _A Doll's House_ , searched for freedom as well. Initially, her freedom was thought to be achieved by paying off her debt. However, after the event of Krogstad's blackmail, she reconsiderd her personal notion of freedom and happiness in the house of Torvald. In light of the quickly approaching Passover, as well as the two works of literature that we read, what does freedom really mean to you?

Batsheva asks a great question about the sacrifices one might be forced to make in pursuing a grand ideal:

Throughout the year we have discussed giving voice to the voiceless. In Little Bee, Sarah and Little Bee gave a voice to the African children at the price of Little Bee's life. In the play, A Doll’s House, Nora stands up for herself and all the objectified women of her time at the expense of her children. 

At the end of the play, Nora realizes that her husband is a selfish, hypocritical man who has been treating her like a child and a doll, rather than as an equal. “It was tonight, when the miracle didn’t happen. It was then that [she] saw that [he] was not the man [she] thought [he] was” (115). Nora finally stood up for herself and all the objectified women of her time.

Even though Nora is a fictional character, her rebellion taught women of the time to fight for their beliefs. Women would never have been granted the right to vote or to be independent without having to risk everything. Nora gave up her children so she could be independent. To accomplish something worthy, sacrifice and radical transformation is necessary. 

Is it worth losing your loved ones to embark on a personal quest?

To use the terminology Warren Berger introduces readers to: how might we make questioning a more important and frequent component of education -- and our own lives?

Additional Resources

Want to see how these math, science, and engineering teachers work with a PBL coach to create a driving question on wing efficiency in planes?

Finally, have you seen Frisch School English teacher Daniel Rosen's blog post on how the Passover Seder is like a PBL unit?