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Asking the Right Questions Versus Knowing the Right Answers

This post is by Sherry L. Deckman.

I recently asked undergraduates in my Social and Cultural Foundations of Education course to provide feedback on how the class was progressing for them, including any frustrations or lingering questions. A common theme around this mid-semester point was how much the students didn't know:
    "It frustrates me to think about how there aren't easy solutions when it comes to education so I'm having trouble trying to figure out what I can do to make a change."
    "There's no one solution or one right way to fix the issues we're discussing; there are no definitive answers."
    "Since the start of this school year, I feel like I'm more aware of the issues, but I don't have a straight 'answer' as to whether something is good or bad."
It would be reasonable to conclude that my class is confusing students about educational inequity in the United States. This is actually my intention. In fact, I hope students leave the course with more questions than answers and I've told them as much. The art of crafting a critically insightful question is a valuable skill and it is particularly important when negotiating issues of diversity, be they racial, cultural, linguistic, economic, or beyond.

Asking questions is precisely a skill that successful educators and policy makers have. However, the kinds of questions being asked matter as well. In our own research, Mica Pollock, Meredith Mira, Carla Shalaby, and I found an exceedingly common question among student teachers in a course on anti-racist pedagogy was, "But what can I do?"

The aspiring educators in our study wanted to know what steps could be taken to address the racial inequity that they were identifying in their course work and teaching practicum. Many of these beginning educators were preoccupied with taking action. However, I argue that for them and others who intend to address some of education's most trenchant problems between the educational haves and have-nots, the place to start might just be to ask more questions and to avoid an immediate quest for solutions.

Some of the problems we are facing in addressing opportunity and achievement gaps for students are urgent and thinking about generating more questions might seem like a misuse of time. Yet, asking the "right" questions--those that lead us to a deeper understanding of the issue--may actually make our efforts more productive. Further, the questions we think to ask dictate the possible answers or solutions we can generate. Consider a common question related to the achievement gap: How can we raise [specific subgroup] students' test scores? Such a question assumes that test scores are the place to focus and obscures the reality that test scores are often symptomatic of other educational issues and wider societal inequalities, not to mention that test scores are too limiting to understand a range of what students can really do in authentic reading, math, science, and history tasks. Asking questions like this and going no further, constrains the path forward for educators.

Alternatively, a series of questions aimed at getting to the root of issues may provide solutions that have potential for longer-term impact. In my class, we focus on: Whom does this arrangement benefit, how, and under what circumstances? When we ask this set of questions specifically about racial, cultural, linguistic, or economic diversity in education, we are getting at what and I have referred to as "critical diversity" or "critical multiculturalism."

Taking a lens of critical diversity in conversations about educational equity requires educators to consider power dynamics such as varying levels of educational access and privilege between those from dominate and marginalized groups. Power dynamics are messy and confusing and often context-bound. In other words, underlying causes of inequity are not static and change over time and place. The fact that my students feel so confused about how to move forward in education is pushing them to ask more, and more critical questions than they otherwise might. This question-asking skill, I believe, is a key to bringing about lasting change in education. We might all take a lesson from the young people in my class and start to think about what it is that we actually don't know.

How are you already engaging critical diversity in conversations about your students? What opportunities exist for you to ask more questions and what might have been holding you back from doing so already? How can asking more questions and more critical questions benefit your students?

Sherry L. Deckman is an assistant professor of social and cultural foundations of education at Ithaca College in New York.
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