Questioning Everything

questionmarkHere we are at the end of the fall trimester of 2014 at Proctor Academy, a small school in rural New Hampshire, my home for nearly half my life,  and I feel more confused, less sure of my role as a teacher and more opened up to new ideas, than ever before.  It is a bit scary, but more than that it is exhilarating. Twenty-five years in the classroom, and today I have no idea how to do the job anymore. It is time to question everything.

For example, yesterday I had to write an “Exam” for my Climate Science class. The trouble is, the course has not been about learning and memorizing the facts, about which later the kids can be “examined.” It’s not that kids have not learned stuff; they have. There is a core of concepts and material with which I hope they all are familiar. However different kids have taken away different things from the course, depending on their previous background (what neuronal circuits they already had, that are ready for new attachments). Also students have found different sub-topics to be most enticing to pursue.

Kids learning different things was the first problem with trying to write a traditional exam. The next problem was that the class itself has not focused on learning-facts-then-being-tested-on-them. Much of the work we have done in the course has been small group oriented, somewhat hands on, doing experiments or activities. We have only had three actual “tests” all term, which in themselves have felt quite awkward to be honest. The rest of the “assessments” (work that has earned credit) have been write-ups for our activities, or study guides in which students are often encouraged to draw sketches as ways to learn and explain the concepts beyond words. What am I supposed to do, have them draw pictures for the exam? How am I supposed to “grade” that sort of thing? It seems unfair to me to test students in some way that we have not practiced during the course.

When students come to my chemistry class saying “I was so lost about the reading last night!” I always say to them. “That’s good! Being confused is the perfect starting place for learning something new!”

Now I must follow my own advice!

Here’s the problem. I’ve been teaching the answers for 25 years.  I have a lot of practice in explaining stuff and teaching basic skills. However, now I’m realizing that might not be the best thing for the future of education. The world today’s students will be entering is going to be entirely different from the one we grew up in.

Starting this blog this fall has been a huge growth enhancer. It has been like putting my brain on steroids. There are two big effects of blogging I’ve noticed. The first is that one is forced to clarify one’s thoughts in order to articulate them. Sometimes I find out exactly what I believe in the process of writing.

Second, one finds new contacts and friends in this on-line world. One of these influential people for me is Mike Crowley at the International School in Brussels Belgium. He is Head of the Middle School there and from what I read on his blog, he is quite an amazing educator. (Go there and read ALL his essays.  They are far better than mine!) His essays have had a profound impact on me. In one of his latest pieces he posted this video. It is a must watch.

This weekend I was asked to do a presentation to our school’s Board of Trustees. I was somewhat terrified, peripheral vision closed in and my sense of time was warped. (Fifteen minutes went by in a heartbeat.) Apparently it went OK, according to people who were there, although I remember very little. If I got across to these nice folks, and they are indeed extraordinarily kind and warm people, my terror being self-induced, I hope it is the idea that education is ready and ripe for a revolution. I’m not at all sure what that will look like, but I’m fairly certain that the way we adults were educated is not going to serve this next generation well at all. It’s no longer about sitting in rows and learning facts, later to be spit back on tests and exams. It’s no longer about knowing a set of answers.

It might be something about working together as the social primates we are.  It might be something about developing students’ neuronal circuitry.  It might have something to do with how all brains respond to stimuli and learn from there.

It might be something about exploring the questions?


About Sue Houston

I've been teaching high school science for over 25 years. The more I learn, the more questions I have about how good education really works. This blog is an attempt to explore the fundamental question of "How do Kids Learn?" This blog will include posts related to technology in education, neuroscience, behavioral science and real life experiences in the classroom. Please, I invite you all to join the conversation in the comments sections. Perhaps together we can find more insights into how kids learn! If you are a student, educator, or past student (that covers everyone, right?) you have something to contribute! :)
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8 Responses to Questioning Everything

  1. Good post, Sue. Thanks for the endorsement. I am not at all amazing. Like you, after 25 years as an educator, I am trying to puzzle the questions. It’s so true when you say that one is forced to clarify one’s thoughts in order to articulate them. Keep writing and sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. AmyMak says:

    Fantastic. That video made my heart beat a little faster! It takes a little humility to stand in front of a class and say, “I don’t know all the answers – let’s try to find them” versus being the definitive source of all things (I think we’ve all known teachers who know everything :). Love this. Much to muse on. I’ll have to check out Mike Crowley’s blog – thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sue Houston says:

    Thanks for commenting Amy! Yes, Mike Crowley’s blog is awesome. You’ll love it! As far as admitting to not knowing the answers, it is quite a relief and very freeing! 🙂


  4. Adam Jones says:

    Totally awesome Sue! So glad to working with you so we can share, experiment and learn from one another. Now we just need to find some of crazy people to blow up their classes with us! How do we encourage people to get together and talk about the evolving pedagogy in education. I don’t accept that there isn’t time. You give time to what you value.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sue Houston says:

    Thanks Adam. I am so excited to be on this journey with folks like you! And I need to give you much credit for lighting the way. I have a very clear memory of you in front of the faculty one evening telling us that teaching with technology requires a different approach… more student centered and active. Your words are what had me get started last year experimenting with the I-pad as a learning tool in Biology, and that process is what began to get me out of my old ruts as a teacher! Let’s keep talking! Collaboration is absolutely necessary for us to make progress. Exchanging ideas is truly inspiring!


  6. Whit Ford says:

    Hear, hear! The ideas are great, wonderful, exciting, motivating, interesting… the challenge is to put them into practice effectively without soaking up every last second of your out-of-class time. I love many of Eric Mazur’s ideas, but figuring out how to put them into practice successfully at an Algebra I or II level, or even with Freshmen in general, can be extremely challenging if I assume that the same text will be used. But finding a better text is another time-sink. However, after several years of thinking about these topics, I think I am finally seeing some possible approaches I could try (and do try with tutees occasionally). So, hang in there, stay excited, and be both patient and impatient!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: A Moment of Clarity | How Do Kids Learn ?

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