Teachers: you hold the secrets. You are an enormous neural network of experience about how we learn; all we have to do is access that knowledge and answers leap out at us. If the answers sound complicated, reduce them to their simplest terms.
Andrea Kuszewski, writing in Creativity Post, reports on a series of studies that show that students who find their own problem are more engaged and generate superior outcomes on some tests than students who are fed problems. Thanks to Andrea for putting together great resources on this. But why was this ever a question that educational researchers felt was an unknown?
Thirty years ago I asked myself a simple question: why is my brother a great AP US history teacher? I knew he was; his students made record scores on the AP exam, loved coming to his class, and repeatedly reported him as one of the top teachers in the school. What did he do that was different, more memorable, more impactful, and more transformational than other teachers?
He told me two stories. In the first, he introduced the subject of Abraham Lincoln by having his students read Lincoln’s most overtly racist commentary. He just let it sit there, and within minutes, the students were battling to discuss how the Great Emancipator could be a racist, which of course led deeply and immediately into the complex culture and politics of pre-Civil War America.
The second example he gave was teaching colonial America by having his students engage in a week-long re-enactment of the Salem witch trials, complete at the end of the week with students voting to hang their friends. It was an experience that few of them will ever forget, asking themselves through very real tears, how they could have yielded their principles for the expediency of finding a scapegoat amongst them.
To me it was quite simple, and I came to the answer while running by dogs up Twin Peaks on a late spring afternoon; it formed the core of my teaching and book, The Falconer. All the educators of the 1980’s were touting critical thinking and problem solving. What my brother did was turn his students into problem finders by creating conditions of dissonance, and leaving the students to engage based on the NEED, the passion, the drive to sort out that dissonance. On that afternoon in 1985 I had never heard the term “problem finder” before, and that fact astonished me.
Thankfully, researchers are validating what many of us have known for decades, and what you, as a good teacher know in your mind and heart. Students don’t have to be unruly and break rules and be disruptive to teach themselves; they just have to be placed in ground where the sod is not all broken and turned already in neat rows. They just have to find a reason to care, and their natural curiosity and urge to reconcile the dissonance will take over.
Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be. Create ways for your students to feel intellectually uncomfortable, and they will grab at the need to learn.