Saturday, April 26, 2014

W: Why? #AtoZChallenge

Why ask Why? That's the tag-line of an old Barttes and Jaymes commercial. 

Why ask Why? It's also a line I used in a speech my freshman year of college: "Why ask why? A dream, a possibility, a hope for a brighter tomorrow." There was a line about JFK in there somewhere, too. 

I began learning about the world at a young age. My father made me watch the news beginning when I was seven, which was at the height of the Vietnam War. 

I spend my day with teens who ask two questions more often than any other: 

  • "Can I go to the bathroom?"
  • "What do you want?" or the variation: "I don't know what you want." 
My typical response is, "I don't know. Tell me what you want to learn. What ideas do you have? How do you think you should approach this task?" Sometimes I direct a student to look at another student's approach to a project. I try not to create a fill-in-the-blank scenario. In education speak, I'm a constructivist who believes in teaching and reading classics as well as contemporary texts. 

My students struggle to find something about which they are curious. Too often their sense of "Why?" goes no further than the latest Snap Chat post and Twitter battle. 

The never-ending-nightmare of the senior project illustrates their lack of inquisitiveness. We began thinking about topics at the beginning of the year. Yet when faced with deadlines, a common refrain was, "I don't know what to do my project on." Students often turn to me for ideas, and I share many with them, including my own recent reading and ideas, websites with possible ideas, etc. I have colleagues who solve the topic choice problem by limiting the choices. 

My own anecdotal observation is this: The more engrained a culture of test prep and test taking become in our schools, the less naturally inquisitive we become. This is not just true of children, but it's also evident among adults. Too often we don't have a sense of curiosity about our world.

To illustrate: Yesterday I had a conversation with some adults in my building and mentioned the declining middle class. The response from one: "I don't know anything about that." I continued by sharing titles of three books on the bestseller list: Flashboys: A Wall Street Revolt  by Michael Lewis, Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty, and A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren. All three books are on my TBR list because I want to know how the system is geared against the middle class. 

"There's no such thing as a stupid question." We tell kids this, but how often do we shut down their natural inquisitiveness with our responses to their questions? What effect has our insistence on standardization and the testing inherent in it had on our students' ability to question? 
Why ask why? Because...

Questioning is fun.
Questions show us the path of exploration.
Questions help us learn.
Questions help us show who we are. 
Questions show us who others are. 
Questions help us organize our world. 
Questions show us what to do next. 

Our ability to solve our world's problems depends on our ability to ask questions. 

For more on questions, check out the TEDx talk below: 


  1. I think a never ending search for the answer to 'why' is why I write. Nice post. the three books you mentioned are now on my TBR list, too, and for the same reasons. Interesting topic.

    1. Leaning the answer to Why? is probably the biggest reason I teach. How? is also important, but I've always loved the planning part and lesson creation because it gives me a reason to learn.

  2. I was almost punching the air when I read this. Questions are a passion of mine too, and the lack of them in some people's lives makes me want to weep with frustration sometimes! So many people seem to drift through life asking nothing about the world around them, or challenging their own ingrained beliefs. As a writer and teacher, I've often reminded students and myself of the value of the 'six honest serving men': who, why, what, how, when and where; and as an Equalities Coordinator I once gave staff members the task of ordering 3 villages, 3 car makes and 3 desserts by themselves according to their in preference, and then discussing their choices. As planned, they put car makes they'd owned and liked, places they'd lived and desserts they'd tried in first place. How would they find out about the ones they were unfamiliar with, I asked - well, they would ask someone who had owned a Ford, or who had lived in St.Ives, or eaten kulfi (and as planned, they could name a member of staff who had done these things). So they wouldn't form an opinion on something without knowing something themselves? No, they said, Of course they wouldn't. That would be SILLY! And if they asked for advice, they'd ask someone who had actual experience? Of course! they said. And then keeping my face and voice completely unchanged, I asked, 'so how many of you believe that gypsies are lying, thieving scumbags?' Stunned silence. One brave person put their hand up and I said 'well done'! Everyone else looked shocked - until I carried on and they got the point! 'And why do you think that? Do you actually know any gypsies?' No, she admitted - she didn't. Nor did she know anyone else who did. Like the rest of the group, that belief had been ingrained in her by her parents - and she'd never questioned it.
    It's all about the questions... ;)

    1. Alison, thanks for this thoughtful response. I love your story. Interestingly, over the years I've made some observations about my high school friends: Those of us who moved away tend to ask more questions and see "others" differently than those who remained in the area where we grew up. Of course, there are exceptions, but as we've become reacquainted--particularly on FB--I've noticed some patterns. I tell kids not to take my word for something but that they should go out and fact-check what I say.

  3. If a person doesn't ask "why?" they will accept everything that is told to them. They will be sheep instead of people who can think for themselves.

    1. Exactly. Learning not to be a sheep is so necessary, but the world is tough on the nonconformists, more now, I think, that in Thoreau's time.

  4. It's important to ask questions as a child. teen. And it's important for adults to give them answers and not just brush them off because they may have too many questions. My oldest nephew is an avid question asking because he loves to learn. He loves to know things. So I always try to give him answers the best I can. It's also important for adults to keep asking questions, too. :)

  5. Hi Glenda, Thanks for dropping by my blog for a visit. I thought I would return the favor. I'm going to disagree about the no stupid questions comment. I do think that there are stupid questions because some folks are quick to ask without thinking. I was a teacher too and still sub for a few carefully chosen friends. I find the lack of curiosity among students unsettling. I know I was naive in my youth, but not uninterested.

  6. Great post! As an educator (elementary for 10 years, now preschool after 9 years home with my girls) I'm constantly asking questions back to youngsters to try to get them to problem solve and think past the end of their nose. It's tiring work some days. ;)

    But I'm with you. Teaching to a test (I began teaching pre no child left behind and stopped post.) does much to crush curiosity. There's no time for spontaneity or teaching more on a topic they're interested in or curious about. It's a crying shame whats been done to our education system.