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Author Interview With Shanna Peeples: 'Think Like Socrates'

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Shanna Peeples agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, Think Like Socrates: Using Questions to Invite Wonder & Empathy Into The Classroom.

Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, taught middle and high school English in low-income schools in Amarillo, Texas, for 14 years. Currently, Shanna is a doctoral candidate in education leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and most recently served as the Educator in Residence at TED-Ed.

LF: Educators are constantly talking about and reading about the importance of asking, as well as eliciting, questions.  What's the big deal about questions, and what makes a good one?

Shanna Peeples:

Allowing real curiosity - the kind that fuels philosophers, artists, scientists, historians, explorers and innovators - is the most fundamental change we can make in our teaching practice. When we step back and allow students to step forward with their own inquiry, it throws a switch in their brains that changes everything.

The fastest way to engage anyone's brain is to ask it a question, neuroscience says. Inquiry is like caffeine for kids' brains. That's because questions kickstart a process inside their heads that works like a kind of prediction machine. Once a question enters this system, the brain begins trying to resolve the uncertainty by formulating answers. The tension that comes from wanting to know if they've guessed correctly is powerfully engaging.

As teachers, we can use this information as a sort of neurological hack. If we carefully scaffold students' questions in a way that points toward the content we need to teach, we can enlist their natural tendency to find answers into deeper learning experiences. These experiences then in turn develop their vocabulary, their speaking and listening skills, writing skills, their reading, and their critical thinking.

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LF: Let's consider two types of questions - teacher-generated ones and student-generated ones.  What are three pieces of advice you would give to teachers so they can be more effective and strategic with the questions they ask of students?

Shanna Peeples:

Consider yourself the model learner in the classroom. As the teacher, you are demonstrating what it looks like to be curious and to love learning. In service of this model, share your own authentic questions with students.

What are the questions you remember being obsessed with when you were the age of your students? Share those to show them how you've continued to be a learner and how they can stay curious, too.

Allow students to see that you don't always know the answers and that sometimes questions are big enough to live with and keep us searching. These kinds of questions are open-ended and spark discussion. They line up with the great questions of classical philosophy. For example, the questions: What is love? Are we alone in the universe? What happens when we die? are those that we can spend our whole lives thinking and learning about.

The more you demonstrate that wondering about the world and everything in it is something you enjoy doing, the more you model that school is not a place where only the privileged few come to find and repeat the "right" answers to their teachers. This helps all students become your apprentices of creative and flexible thinking. Most powerfully, inquiry is a way into the work of authentic equity because any learner can approach it as entry point into learning.

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LF: Now, let's consider the other type of question - ones that are student-generated.  What are three pieces of advice that you would give to teachers so they can be more effective and strategic in eliciting good questions from their students?

Shanna Peeples:

In working with a challenging group during my second year of teaching middle school, I tried sharing questions that were personally meaningful to me because they'd haunted me. Questions like: Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do some people who commit crimes never get caught? I then asked kids what questions haunted them and invited them to write them anonymously on a card and hand them in.

When one of my colleagues asked for the lesson plan, I went straight into telling her the nuts and bolts. What I forgot to tell her--or even reflect on myself--was how long it had taken me to establish the trust, community, and respect that makes this kind of inquiry possible.

The lesson, when reduced to just its mechanics, was disastrous for her in a way that all these years later I wish I could take back. She came to me the next day, in tears.

Right then, I felt like the biggest jerk in the world. Here I'd gone and exposed this kind person to suffering I never would've wished on anyone because I didn't think about how much classroom climate matters. So, the main ingredients needed for inviting students' authentic questions are these conditions:

• A sacred space for writing and thinking
• A culture of respect, kindness, and openness to new ideas
• A willingness to listen down deep to children

Once you've cultivated this atmosphere, everyone - including you - will feel safe enough to share the questions that they keep locked in the center of their hearts.

LF: What are the biggest mistakes made by teachers when asking or eliciting questions?

Shanna Peeples:

My worst mistakes as a teacher always came when I valued the content over the kids. When I felt pressured to "cover material" rather than grow the learners in front of me. This not only caused most students to feel intellectually unwelcome, it deflated their motivation to learn and caused them to disengage.

Another error was even worse: Keeping myself as the center of any discussion, using it to manipulate it to keep my thoughts and opinions dominant. This was practicing a form of intellectual dishonesty and pedagogical cowardice that was easy for me to slip into because it kept me in control.

That often looked like me pretending to invite students' questions but finding ways to blunt their curiosity and render their sharp observations into bland and banal "takeaways" that kept the conversations safe and uncontroversial.

Learning - true learning - carries risk and requires vulnerability. We need to be honest about this and honest with ourselves as teachers. But the reward for that kind of courage is that our students will appreciate our efforts in creating authentic learning spaces where everyone engages with the topic. This is how we cultivate an appetite for valid academic work.

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LF: What are some things you learned in the process of writing this book?

Shanna Peeples:

We need to value and respect the intellectual integrity of children's minds. Our own adult questions mirror theirs. If we are brave enough to make questions the center of our classroom rather than privileging answers, we can connect across lines of difference in a much deeper way.

Nothing creates community as fast as sharing real questions. In field testing the strategies in the book, I learned that when I read anonymous participant's questions, whether they are children or adults, it always changes the temperature of the room. When you hear your own deeply held questions echoed in those of others, it helps you to not feel alone in them. Our isolation decreases and we feel a connection that goes beyond surface labels and into what truly binds us as human beings. 

This is another way to think about terms like "personalized learning" or "flipped learning," but instead of having students work on the content we want them to learn first, it uses their own questions as an entry into content. Starting with a student's own question flips the work back to the student, engages them in authentic inquiry, and truly personalizes the learning.

Teachers don't have to generate essential questions themselves or create something extra. Student understanding then becomes the end goal rather than "the test." Assessments don't change, but the engagement and motivation for learning what's assessed changes.

LF: Is there anything I haven't asked that you'd like to share?

Shanna Peeples:

Teachers can use this process as well to create their own personalized professional development. At my school, when we worked from our shared questions, we began to find not just the 15th way to address a teaching and learning challenge, but the 19th, 20th, and 21st way. Because those answers came from us, the process gave us confidence in our own professionalism and ability to solve our own problems.

The answers we seek are often inside ourselves, our colleagues, and our students. The lack of trust in teachers from outside our schools has filtered into our classrooms, and most distressingly, into our own heads. We've been convinced that there are easier answers that lie inside some outside entity or person far removed from our contexts.

Talking with Parker Palmer helped me understand this. He's a master teacher I interviewed for the book along with two dozen award-winning teachers across all grade levels and content areas. He said that the separateness reinforced in so much of our in-service days creates a professional muteness.

When you are able to isolate people from one another, you prevent them from effectively resisting the worst of the rules and the most toxic of an institution's structures. Giving teachers time and space to think about their own questions gives them an experience of the power of community. That power is what will fuel transformational teaching and learning.

LF: Thanks, Shanna!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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