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Moving Student Questions to the Center of Our Work

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Children have ideas, thoughts, and questions, that often, without realizing it, adults cast aside as unanswerable, undoable, unknowable or irrelevant. These are engagement moments lost but most schools are not yet built to work with them.  Yet, they represent abundant and interesting entrance opportunities for engaging students.

In traditional teaching and learning environments, it has long been a practice for teachers to seize the moment when a student asks a question or expresses a thought that seems worthy of following. The lesson is held as the discussion veers to respond. That is good teaching. If it happens during an observation, the observer either sees the move as it happens or asks afterwards about the alteration of the plan. The intention is to honor the child or children with the question. Keep that child engaged while others begin to follow suit trusting the worthiness of their questions also. Engagement.

Traditional teaching and learning environments are constructed to support the notion that the teacher has the knowledge and will answer the question. In classrooms with technology accessible and integrated, talented teachers have come to a place where they admit not knowing the answer. A research opportunity is created for the student or the class to find the answer. A whole new set of learning skills are taught in this scenario. They step into becoming 21st century learners.

Boundless Innovative Thinking
This post was provoked by our viewing of this video from MIT, where students took the idea that sign language could be turned into speech by using their knowledge of technology.

Before stopping and thinking this is a premier university with exceptionally talented students, consider this true story.

Around 1981, a 5 year old was asking his mother about a card she took out to pay for something at a store. The mother waited until they were back in the car, and the boy secured in his car seat to begin the conversation. She explained that the card allowed her to borrow the money from the bank or company and then she would pay them back at the end of the month. If she missed the payment, they would charge her money called interest.  His response was thoughtful...why doesn't the card let you use your own money?  The mother thought and responded... "I don't know. Good idea." and there it ended.  The youngster was on to something, because just at that time it appears the idea was catching on. According to Marketplace.org

The first debit card may have hit the market as early as 1966, according to a report by the Kansas City Federal Reserve (pdf). The Bank of Delaware piloted the card. And by the '70s, several other banks were trying out similar ideas. Robert Manning, author of Credit Card Nation, said debit card usage picked up in the '80s and '90s as more and more ATMs started cropping up across the country. In 1990, debit cards were used in about 300 million transactions. In 2009, prepaid and debit cards were used in 37.6 billion transactions.

Listen to the Questions Student Raise
The point is, how many students raise innocent questions all the time and see a possible future that we don't see? How many of these questions are dismissed by parents and by educators? We wonder when the idea for the speaking hands occurred to these students. And why do these ideas arise and take form in college?  Where are the K -12 examples? Surely, we cannot expect all questions to be turned into curriculum yet it is within those questions we can find some answers to the student engagement conundrum and the 21st century learning environment. 

In Nashville, Tennessee, an elementary student was diagnosed with cancer and was going to be out of school for some time. As students had questions, the grade level teachers saw the opportunity to design their curriculum around the cancer diagnosis. With the permission of the girl's parents, the work began. Teachers were given the time to take portions of their various curriculum and piece them together into a full blown project that included partnering with university professors, doctors and researchers. The result was engagement for all. Teachers were so energized by this participation that their work together went well beyond what had been originally imagined and planned. They were ignited by watching engaged children and by the field experts who joined them. Some time after those students moved ahead in their grades, when asked about their earlier school experience, they all pointed to that time they did the cancer research.  Who wouldn't want that? We are sure this is happening in many schools across the country, right?

Leaders' Support
It is not, however, a teacher-only event. When asking teachers to take responsibility for changing the way curriculum is organized, move from information delivery to research and problem solving, not only is training required for teachers, it is also required for leaders. The leader's ability to skillfully support this work, observe and offer feedback is essential.Teachers cannot be expected to make 21st century engagement decisions without the understanding and support of their leaders. Each school and district may have different limitations from which to begin. But all schools and districts have possibilities. It is those possibilities that will fuel the vision for changing how teaching and learning takes place. That vision, designed with the voices of multiple constituents, formed by consensus, and carried, with understanding by all, serves as the foundation.  With the leaders' constant attention to the support and guidance the teachers need and can give each other, with the understanding that time and learning and practice are essential, with the creation of a judgment free zone, where courage to take risks and knowledge that all experiences are learning experiences, we can expect teaching and learning for students will change.

Since children haven't yet accepted boundaries to their thinking, their ideas may be extraordinarily filled with what is possible. We contend the students' questions  may hold the key to engaging them in their learning.  There is no easier way to establish relevancy. Who wouldn't want that?

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