Authentic Questions and the Perils of Expertise

When I was a newer and younger teacher, I was also a graduate student, and one of my professors was an expert not only in research in his field but also in training us grads to think. I hadn’t ever met anyone quite like him before, and the same holds since. His graduate seminars were carefully plotted.

This teacher didn’t lecture but rather invited us to analyze the arguments in the texts we were reading (I’m remembering W.V. Quine’s “web of belief” and William James’ Pragmatism) and offer challenges to those arguments. The goal of all of his classes was to identify, analyze, and dismantle the arguments in whatever topic we were researching together.

In class, he’d ask us questions, and he expected particular responses. This was because he almost always already knew what we were going to say, no matter how inventive we thought we were being. He’d signal that there were exceptions, though, as every once in a great while, he’d say, “That’s interesting; I haven’t heard that approach before…”. We’d feel all warm and fuzzy when this happened. We’d leave each semester feeling as though we’d had our thinking skills throttled into overdrive. I appreciated his classes more than any I’d had since my undergraduate days, years before.

This instructor explained to us how he prepares for a class period. Namely, he would analyze the text itself alongside responses in the professional literature and would consider all other possible responses he’d see himself. And he’d see a lot of possible responses – some good and some bad – in the logical space made by the author to whom we were to respond.

For a while, I wanted to emulate his methods. I worked hard to become a content expert in whatever thing I was teaching, guide the students to identify the arguments in the text, and praise those who either parroted professionals’ takes on those arguments or who – and this was rare – came up with something I hadn’t heard before. So long as I was teaching Philosophy and teaching the subject of philosophy without concern for application outside of that field, this worked well.

In 2013, when I took my first job teaching young learners, I carried forward in this mode of teaching. In fact, it fit fairly well with the type of institution at which I taught. They were old fashioned in the sense that they had a list of facts and procedures they wanted the students to come to understand, and the teacher’s method of delivery was all that required honing and perfecting. If the students didn’t perform well on tests, the teacher’s delivery was at fault. At this institution, as teachers would teach the content year after year, they’d become more proficient in delivering the content. We’d learn to anticipate potential student responses and build explanations into our lessons that might head those confusions off at the pass, so to speak.

I taught this way for four years, and I thereby improved in my proficiency of delivery. I became an expert at content delivery for a large swathe of material. I could teach fifth graders to identify and write adverb subordinate clauses, determine possible outcomes in cases of compound probability, and apply the scientific method to identify dependent variables in an experiment. This way of teaching worked in that it achieved exactly what it set out to achieve. The students learned a lot, and they became proficient computing machines in various ways. They moved on from our school to high-level high schools – preparatory schools, honors programs, and the like. They’re successful almost-grownups, now, heading for what are thought of as good universities and colleges.

I moved to a different school in 2017, and everything changed. This process of change is beside the point for this post, so I’ll skip ahead. Here’s the short version of where I landed: Despite knowing more than anyone else in my classrooms, I do not teach as a mere expert in content anymore. I teach as a partner in student learning.

One of my main strategies now is to ask questions of the students to which I do not know the answer.

Looking back: That professor’s teaching strategy worked extremely well for him and his students, and I have never seen it work very well for anyone else – no exceptions. I’ve attempted it myself, and I’ve seen it attempted in dozens of teachers that I’ve had as an instructor or have observed. In those cases in which teachers attempted to lecture, there was absolutely no need to be there, except to glorify that instructor’s ego. They might as well have been sending out their lectures as podcasts and responding to questions via email or video chat. In cases like mine, above, in which I did what I suppose was an expert job of delivering content, the students learned the content and learned to be efficient. However, the purpose of my teaching was not to have them inquire and to follow up and follow through on their own. They learned strategies and skills, sure – but something was missing. So as not to bury the lead, what I and they were missing was genuine inquiry.

Rather than being a deliverer of information, or a fount of knowledge, the best instructors I’ve had have been guides in exploring ideas. They present quandaries and not solutions. They coach students through thinking to solve the quandaries in directions they couldn’t always predict. They teach thinking strategies and metacognitive strategies. The effect was that they got us excited to learn more and to discover more. Being in class wasn’t something to miss. Class wasn’t something one could have just tape-recorded and played back later in place of attending. You have to be there to ask the questions, since asking the questions is most of the fun, and working through their solutions and reflecting on your thinking is the rest of the work.

Here’s what I’m taking from my experience in twelve years developing as a teacher and in 10+ as a full-time student at the university level: The students need to feel as though what they’re doing has a point. They need to feel as though they ought to be there – that the class isn’t to be missed. They have to be engaged in genuine inquiry to achieve this.

“Because you need to know this” is not an answer that motivates us as adults, so why would we expect our students to sit in class, five days a week, for their entire young lives – based on that explanation? The truth is that they’re right when they say that they don’t need to know this, whatever this is. They can figure it out later, if they learn how to think now. They won’t remember the facts and procedures they learn now, for the most part, anyhow. There are millions of us walking around who were forced to learn as though we were chickens in a factory farm, and it’s not been to our benefit.

The function of a human being is to think and to contemplate, as Aristotle pointed out over two thousand years ago. Forcing a child to sit through classes as a passive receiver of information for years at a time – that’s how we make defective adults. And we need more and not fewer functioning adults.

I’ve been reading Making Thinking Visible (Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison; 2011), and I’ve come across some interesting ideas that have found application in my practice as a classroom teacher. Here’s the bit that got me thinking today: “Asking authentic questions – that is, questions to which the teacher does not already know the answer or to which there are not predetermined answers – is extremely powerful in creating a classroom culture that feels intellectually engaging” (31).

That’s what teaching has become about for me. I ask the questions, and then the students ask more questions. The more questions and the more apt questions they ask, the better job I know I’m doing. They show me what they understand in the inquiries they drive themselves. This is no different from the methods teachers used in those undergraduate classes that turned me from a curious student into a devoted and passionate learner.

The essential questions that guide my planning and then teaching are always questions to which I do not have the answer. I have ideas and responses, sure – but students can come up with their own answers, based on the investigations we work through together and they develop independently. They reason fron evidence, think chronologically and causally, analyze sources, and do the other skill-based reasoning tasks that help them to work from question to a (somehow) satisfying answer to the essential question. If they reason well, they’ve done well in the inquiry, and I can assess their thinking skills as applied in the genuine inquiry.

Students in my classes usually wind up with more questions than answers, and this is part of how we make lifelong learners. It begins with authentic inquiry and allowing our students to drive their own educational experience. The authentic questions we use in the classroom cast the shape of the engagement that drives our students’ learning.

About Steve Capone

Interested in Domestic and Foreign Policy, Ethics, and Political Thought. Part-time adjunct instructor of Philosophy and full-time Middle School educator. Europhile, historiophile, & bibliophile. M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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