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“Is this a question?”

April 27, 2016

 Legend holds that some very challenging exam questions have received some quite brilliant answers.
For example, one exam asked students to use their philosophical skills to disprove the existence of a chair placed at the front of the room.  While many students began to unpack profound theories, one simply wrote, “What chair?”  
Another exam asked, “What is courage?”  A student supposedly turned in a paper completely blank except for the words, “This is.”
Oxford students recite the tale of one philosophy exam asking, “Is this a question?” ... to which one student is said to have written in response, “Yes, if this is an answer.” 
That’s a very simple and obvious thing about the nature of questions: they call forth answers.  As one Stanford University physicist has discovered, this truth has important implications for education.

Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman gave up delivering lectures to his physics classes years ago.  He opted instead to have his students work through questions in small groups.  Compared to passively receiving information in a lecture, Wieman believes that questioning is both a more active and effective form of learning.


From a recent National Public Radio interview with Wieman:


... so far, the data on the effectiveness of active learning techniques - coaching students to be engaged co-pilots in the quest for knowledge - is so convincing it's almost unethical to teach undergraduates any other way. Studies show students taught this way more deeply understood the material. Grades improved 20 percent. Attendance dramatically improved. And course failure rates dropped by almost a third.


When it comes to education, what makes questions so effective?  What did Socrates know so long ago that modern research is now confirming?

The answer is brought into relief by comparing two different notions about education: one has to do with imparting new knowledge to students; the other has to do with leading students from what they already know to new insights and understandings.  Simply put, the former pours knowledge in while the latter draws knowledge out.
Interestingly, the root of the word “education” comes from the Latin ex ducere, meaning “to bring or lead out.”  In other words, education (traditionally understood) doesn’t start with the student’s cranium conceived as a blank slate or an empty pail.  Instead, it seeks to draw out of the student whatever understanding she may already have, make it explicit, and then use it to lead her to logical conclusions. 
And how can we find out what students already understand?  Ask them questions. 
That’s why at the Millis Institute we rely on questions more than lectures to guide students to the truth.  A typical class entails a tutor posing a key question to the group, often drawn from questions that the students themselves submit ahead of time.  This helps to ground the path to wisdom in the assumptions they already hold about a topic, in the terms in which they already understand it.  As they set out to see where these assumptions lead, they often find that they need to correct some ideas and adopt different terms; but the understanding that results tends to be deeper than if they had just been lectured at. 
Questions have the uncanny ability to draw forth answers, and thus they form the first step of a pedagogy focused not merely on depositing facts but fostering discovery.


Last week some of our Millis Institute students served at an event featuring Eric Metaxas, best-selling author of books about William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Hosted by the Australian Christian Lobby, Mr Metaxas spoke about the need for courage in engaging issues of culture, family, education and science from a Christian worldview perspective.  I was very proud of the way these students represented the Millis Institute!


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