Just Ask Yourself…

I’m currently reading Ian Leslie’s book Curious, and very fruitful it is proving. Once again, this is not a book that is solely about education, though it does draw strongly on the educational scene, as one might expect. Once again, the best insight is coming not from a book that concerns itself with classroom mechanics, but with the big and oblique ideas that (should) lie behind it.

In particular, Leslie discusses the importance of questioning as part of not only the formal educational process, but of life as a whole – and the more I think about it, the more important this seems. I wrote a post quite some time ago about the qualities one might look for in an educated person, and by extension in a teacher, and Leslie’s book perhaps casts some light on this. In the manner of many of the best ideas, it’s so obvious – once pointed out…

The willingness to question lies at the core of what it means to be educated. I have always been bemused by people one encounters who may be very highly educated in formal terms, but whose education seems somehow locked inside a bubble that might have secured them certain life-advantages, but which somehow appears to do little to inform their wider lives. And conversely, inspired by people who may not have especially good formal education, but who nonetheless seem to have full intellectual lives. Questioning is indeed the answer, inasmuch as a curious mind will always probe things around it, learn more and thereby derive the intellectual kicks that our brains reward us with. The incurious mind, by contrast just accepts what it finds, with little exploration, little progress – and little reward. As Leslie suggests, this is not purely a product of innate intellect; for all that sharper minds may have the potential to formulate more incisive questions, quite often they don’t. Conditioning and learned behaviour also plays a role.

This may also be a feature of management culture, where the maintenance of an (apparently) successful status quo may actually be more important to those running it than asking critical but disruptive questions about how things could be different. I fear that recent educational practice has fallen well and truly prey to this mindset: the levels of accountability being demanded have suppressed much debate about ways forward. School managements have been more concerned with the reliable delivery of results than the unpredictable matter of asking awkward questions. This has infiltrated both the nature of professional debate (to which the blogosphere is providing a welcome antidote, with predictably diverse results) – and more importantly, the way we teach children. When the emphasis is on achieving exam targets, the nature of teaching tends to be closed, and geared towards the answers which secure those results. Leslie suggests strongly that deep learning is about asking the questions that are the outward expression of a lively curiosity. What is more, research suggests that children’s tendency to ask questions is largely influenced by the behaviour that is modelled to them, initially (and crucially) by parents, but I would suggest also by teachers.

If I’m honest, I’m feeling a little smug in reading this book, for it seems to be supporting many of my own thoughts on such matters.  My instinct is that technically-controlled, closed-process teaching-to-the-target is precisely the opposite of what is needed properly to educate children both in the short term – and to encourage them to develop the curiosity to carry on thinking and learning into later life. This is an inherently disruptive process, since the outcomes of genuine curiosity are distinctly unpredictable, and likely not to be what was expected. Thinking to a target is prone to becoming nothing more than an empty ritual of guess-what-the-teacher-wants.

When it comes to teachers themselves, the ones doing the real thinking may be precisely those who are the awkward individuals who are often the bane of management. But Leslie suggests that such free spirits are worth accommodating precisely for their ideas. Their approach is what it really means to be a ‘reflective practitioner’ – not just someone who always comes to the officially-sanctioned conclusions.

It also strikes me that a divergent, heuristic process like the exercising of real curiosity is another reason why educational research has its limits. It is the complete antithesis of predictable learning, which by definition seeks patterns. I realised many years ago that possibly the ultimate evidence of real learning going on is the pupil who asks the teacher questions, rather than simply tries to double-guess the answers – even (or especially) if those questions are left-field. Nothing more scientific than that. And the best way to encourage children to do this is to be speculative and open-thinking oneself.

One might conclude that the best way to do this is to become good questioners too – and this has significant implications for our own states of mind and world-views. We cannot easily be good questioners if we are not inherently curious ourselves. In a professional context it is a tragedy that so much of the corporate educational scene has effectively driven this out of teachers, demanding technical and corporate compliance instead. Despite a growing body of thinking and writing about the holistic and open-ended nature of real learning, large parts of the establishment still seem to think they can achieve their aims by yet more command-and-control. Another example of how management actually works against educational objectives?

But this is more than professional: it has implications for our own private lives of the mind too.

And what’s more, the instinct that has been saying this to me all along seems actually to be rather more than the mere hunch as which it might be dismissed. More research, followed by more predictability is not the way forward if we want to cultivate more genuinely curious thinkers and innovators; as The Independent strapline used to say, ‘Great Minds Don’t Think Alike’.  My own self-questioning is still telling me through both experience and instinct that more predictability is the very last thing we need.



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