Stimulating Questions

One of the problems I have with institutions of learning (schools) is that they are not structured to foster and nurture independent thought. I agree with Plato's assertion (at least I think it was Plato) that learning consists not of stuffing people with information so much as opening the doors of knowledge within them.

Clearly there is a bit of a precedence dilemma, since it seem that we need to have at least some knowledge imbued into us in order that we can start to ask questions (or even realize that there are questions to be asked). As an aside: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The best answer I have heard is "the egg because the Earth is the egg from which the chicken originally came".

I believe that some priming of the mind with information is necessary to get it started asking questions, but once it is up and running and asking questions then we need to switch to a different mode of teaching. Maybe other people are different, perhaps many people like to be stuffed into classrooms, facing the teacher and having information droned into them. I never have been. I remember that from around grade 3 onward (once I had learned to read), I was paying very little attention in class. I often was lost in my own thoughts or discrete artistic / exploratory activities, periodically looking up and wondering what was going on around me. High school was one of the worst experiences of my life - 5 years of stasis (on the other hand, working life is not any better), 5 years of waiting until we were old enough to be passed off to college.

I don't recall finding school interesting again until I went to CEGEP (the equivalent of college, but you start at age 17 in Quebec), with its myriad of course choices. I took Theories of Man, children's literature, oceanography, and various other non-core courses - which were absolutely stimulating. I also took the course which were core to my studies (electrotechnology). In most cases the actual program courses where significantly less stimulating than the elective course I chose. This was also the case in university - electives were always more interesting than core course.

Recently I was thinking about why children's experiment books are rather bland and unstimulating. The books may be wonderfully produced with beautiful pictures and wonderful explanations. But, let us be honest, the whole idea of an experiment conjures up visions of something exciting. As an example, we did an experiment on pressure with my daughter: get a plastic water bottle, poke three holes vertically along its side, fill it with water and observe that the water at the top does not flow out as far as the water from the whole at the bottom. (Tania picked this one, not me). The experiment is fine, it demonstrates pressure and the book offered some explanation, but … it was lacking.

The problem is that the books do not stimulate questioning. They present information, they even show how to demonstrate the effect, but they do not respond to a question. A book of experiments presents a lot of information. One may look through it to find an answer to a specific question, but we get sidetracked with a lot of information about which we had no question.

Rather than slaking a thirst for knowledge, it simply is given to us, whether we are ready or not for it. We become lazy, why should we think when the knowledge is given to us. Like animals in captivity who lose the ability to hunt and forage because they are regularly fed. Does our education system, in feeding us knowledge, make us lazy? Does it discourage us from discovery and questioning.?

Another aside: chemistry sets today are not anywhere as interesting or exciting as they were when I was a kid. All the interesting chemicals and substances seem to have been removed and we are left with bland substances generally no more toxic than chalk. sigh. NOTE: I am not suggesting that toxic chemicals are better, but typically they resulted in somewhat more interesting experiments.

I learn because I follow a trail of questions - though this means my knowledge tends to be eclectic rather than comprehensive.

Image nabbed from here.


Barbara said…
Unfortunately education has become an exercise in amassing knowledge, not in discovering it. I think it would be really interesting to try to design a children's curriculum which would get it right. This applies to math and all the sciences. Otherwise we will just become robotic and only know what we've been programmed to know. How very boring.

To this day, I cannot simply sit in a class or a meeting and take notes. I have to be multi-tasking or else I fall asleep out of boredom.
Steve said…
In Sweden, PBL (Problem based learning) is taking over every school and university. The idea is to dump all the responisbility on the students. Therefore, the students will be forced to learn through trail and error. They are forced to ask questions and find the answers themselves. Unfortunately, we don't have teachers anymore. Our teachers are like librarians - they keep all the information they possess inside themselves, and if a student asks a question, he or she won't get a straight answer. At best, the teachers direct the students to books.

The idea might be good, but it is not working. That is my experience of it.

Sorry about this incoherent mess. I'm in pain and can't think straight.
Richard said…
barbara: cleary we want to amass some knowledge (a lot of it in fact) in a relatively short time frame. There is little point in discovering and learning things from first principles, but there has to be a better way to fast track it. It is like that proverb (Chinese I believe): "I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.". It took me four calculus courses before I finally understood (or at least had some inkling) what it was all about - calculus would benefit from being explicitly introduced as a unique and distinct math from what was previously learned.

mattias: Oh! That is horrible. A clear case of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. Force feeding people knowledge without inspiring them is no good, but neither is starving them and telling them, "If you are hungry, then go eat."

The problem is in trying to stimulate people into asking questions and in enjoying discovery. Of course, I admit that as a child I had an overly strong interest in things science - I would always choose to watch science shows over fiction or sports, I was a voracious reader consuming books at an alarming rate.
freckled-one said…
I for one find it much easier to teach my own children things by having them do an activity rather than watch my example. Learning by experience, I feel, is the best form of education. You could read a thousand novels but unless you actually put the pen to the paper you will never be able a writer.
Richard said…
Getting involved is a vital aspect of learning. I try to take my kids frequently to science and natural history museums. There are more in Ottawa than Montreal and I used to buy annual memberships - which worked out really well because we could just pop in for an hour and not feel guilty about making sure we got our money's worth on the admission. We ended up going for more short visits rather than long family excursions.
As a teacher of very young children, I see first hand the double-edged sword the problem of teaching is. The middle road approach is best. Not all spoon-feeding but not left to their own devices in the dark either...a Guide by the Side. You want to teach kids how to teach themselves which is accomplished through various methods; by reading information, by doing hands-on, by questioning and challenging, using a "Beyond the Text" model as well as the Higher level thinking skills (known as Bloom's Taxonomy in teaching theory). I think these methods have certainly improved immennsely sive the 50's and 60's when I was taught. I would have thrived with this approach. Luckily for me, I have been blessed with the oppotunity to teach kids subjects that naturally foster creative thinking skills; reading, writing, journals, spelling, drama, and music. I get to transfer my enthusiasm for these subjects to my students and inject them with it...and it has always worked for me. I have come to know that even gr. 0ne's can have a worthwhile discussion and can indeed brainstorm, troubleshoot and offer opinions with reasons to suppport them. So very interesting for me!
I share my own writing with the kids, I often use my poetry and songs as part of the program. I have many young adults come up to me years later and tell me that I was the reason they bought a guitar and got into music. Maybe we just need more creative open-minded teachers who are willing to use open-ended activities.
Your meat grinder picture is so perfect! When they came out with the new curriculum in Ontario, and the Gr. 3 provincial testing, I always likened it to the mother bird shoving worms down the baby birds' open mouths, and then like a food proceessor turning it to mush with no substance remaining! We all hated it but couldn't speak to loudly about was being shoved down our open mouths too. I wrote a song about it and got the whole staff to sing it on Parents' Night...there wasn't a dry eye in the place...I felt so good to have the support of my colleagues and for having expressed myself. Later, I had it recorded in a studio into a Cd demo. Probably the colest thing I've ever done. Most teachers care deeply about the kids and our careers.
Richard said…
MOI: I am not going to pretend that teaching is easy. Teaching involves both indoctrination or the spreading of mind virus' as well as stimulating self discovery and questioning.

The whole inspiration of the post was simply my observation of why I find science experiment books a failure: they fail to stimulate discovery. Sure, they present a problem, present an experiment, and explain the results. But, nowhere in that whole process was the motivating stimulus: "Why do balloons stick to walls when I rub them on my hair." The questions is posed, whether you are ready for it or not, and then answered.

Granted, learning would be impossible if we did not at least feed some information into people and I suppose trying to stimulate interest by asking a question is better than nothing … but I wonder if there is something better?

(Of course, we can also have long discussions on how different learning styles affect education as well).

What I really wanted was a picture Microsoft used to use in their development tools advertisements 20 years ago. It was a professor at a machine with a crank and books being funnelled into the top (like a meat grinder) and to each student was connected a headset. The implication being that they were being educated in a modern way. All knowledge distilled and passed on.
KL said…
Nope; if you curiosity, then you are definitely going to ask question (by "you", I don't mean You, but general); knowledge can also be gathered if you are curious; otherwise not. You didn't know anything about how any gadgets work, what are chemical reactions, how do you find the area and volume of an irregular surface - but then when the teacher imparts all these knowledge to you, with your curiosity you gather all these knowlwdge and then use them and your curiosity to find more answers (knowledges).
Richard said…
kl: while I have no doubt that the reason one would pick up a science book or a book of experiments is because one is curious. My observationwas simply that while it may answer a single question, the problem is that it presents information that is readily accessible without having the search for that specific information directly inspired by a question.

However, I recognize that we cannot build up our knowledge base entirely from first principles and do rely on "standing on the shoulders of giants"

Thank you for dropping by and commenting (and diagreeing with me :)
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