Friday, September 18, 2009

What if schools were organized around questions?

John Lloyd, a British TV producer, comedian, and all-around smart guy has a new talk on TED. Titled, "John Lloyd Inventories the Invisible" it spends 10 minutes detailing the things we cannot see or do not yet understand.

In addition to closing with a great quote (Auden: "We are here on earth to help others. What the others are here for, I have no idea.") that ought to make any civic engagement person think hard, Lloyd says there are two great questions: What are we here for? and What should we do about it?

He made me wonder what a school would look like if it were organized around questions--these or others. This is a big question itself, since so much of schooling is organized around answers as they have congealed into disciplines over the years. The result is a passing on of knowledge (not a bad thing in and of itself) but also a limit on the creativity of students and teachers.

Among the things a "question school" would have to take up is the question of how we would know if a student was ready to move on. Today, students "graduate" when they have fulfilled a set of requirements, related almost entirely to taking courses, attendance, and passing exams. But if a school was focused on questions, how would it end? Probably not with answers, since for the big questions there aren't always answers.

This makes me think of Zen practice, where the teacher asks students to work on koans--short, complex, unclear stories. Questions really. Student and teacher talk through the koan regularly. In between conversations students study, meditate, work. At some point the student has exhausted the koan or gained deep insight into it, and the student moves on.

Could a "question school" work the same way?

1 comment:

lionofzion said...

One of the other issues in that while a koan and the basic existential questions you raise here are both unanswerable in many ways, the koan is something which we are meant to move on from, whereas a question like "What are we here for?" is a question we can never move on from, no matter how satisfactory we think our answers may be, because we must keep living both question and answer.

Perhaps the first step towards this model of education could be to replace the classic 'mission statement' with a 'mission question' thus moving the school's central goal away from instilling some sort of knowledge or character (a central feature noted in most school mission statements) and towards serving as a challenge to students and teachers to more thoroughly examine their places in the world.