There are many people who have moulded me into the person I am today, and influenced what I’ve accomplished so far in my life, and what I will accomplish in the future. But there is one person in particular who made this life path of reading, writing, learning, and wondering available to me. Mr. G , my Grade 8 History teacher, offered me a way of seeing the world in which questioning the way things are is both vital and fulfilling, as the way things will be is up to us, the students.
One thing that gets me fired up and frustrated and desperate for change is the approach to education in high schools. Despite this frustration, I don’t yet know how to fix the education system. I haven’t learned enough about how brains learn just yet. However, I do have an idea of where we need to start. And Mr. G has unknowingly provided a foundation for me that has directly influenced the development of this idea in my head.
Firstly, we don’t need better curriculums. Fantastic curriculums exist already. Albeit, they seem to only exist in extremely expensive private schools, but they DO exist! So we DO know what to teach kids. What we need more than that is a different attitude to learning. And that change starts with annoying children…
Note to all parents: scientists confirm your suspicions: each kid can ask dozens of questions every hour. From my own observations of parents and kids, it would appear that after a few rounds of “But, why???”…it is no longer cute or funny. According to Frazier, Gelman, and Wellman (2009), parents only give explanatory answers to their kids’ questions 50-60% of the time — less for younger children. And we know that kids really are asking questions to learn, not just to get attention, because kids react differently to explanatory answers (“You have to stay close to mummy when we’re at the mall because getting lost can be dangerous and scary.”) than they do to non-answers (“Because I said so”, “Ask your dad”, and “Not now”). Explanatory answers cue kids to be more curious and to ask more questions, whereas non-answers force kids to ask the same question again or make up their own answer. Furthermore, kids either learn that asking questions is a fruitful activity: self-directed learning is good!; or that asking questions gets you nowhere: people will tell me things if I need to know them.
Too often, students are encouraged not to ask disruptive questions like “But why did that happen?” or “But what if I did it this way?”. We are asked to learn the information as it is, without questioning it. Parents and teachers: when kids ask “Why?” , they are learning to learn. If toddlers and kids and teens get solid answers and are encouraged to be curious, the cycle will continue and they will learn all the things! If they get shut down every time they ask why things are the way they are…they’ll stop asking. And that alone is utterly terrifying to me.
Back to Mr. G… He once told my class,
“A good teacher is just a student who had a bad experience in school.”
And that thought has stuck with me for 7 years. But it’s been on my mind a lot lately, so I did some research. Mr. G, if you’re reading this, it turns out you were exactly right. Ronald A. Beghetto has done a lot of research on teachers, creativity, and the learning experience. One of his studies confirmed that “prospective teachers who viewed promoting creativity of students as highly important were significantly less likely to report that they enjoyed school” (2006).
Mr. G taught me that being inquisitive is one of the greatest, most admirable traits someone can have. Because the people who ask “Why?” are the people who effect change. They are the people who make all the difference in the world.
Mr. G made it okay to nerd out. He gave the go-ahead for students to be who they wanted to be and learn how they wanted to learn. And (though I was a brat when I graduated from his class) his lessons and encouragement have had the greatest impact on my life, now that I’ve had time to think about them. And I won’t ever be able to explain how grateful I am for that. Because I am now one of the biggest, proudest nerds you’ll ever meet. I love learning. I love going to class. And more than anything, I love sharing what I’ve learned with other people. Before Mr. G, I was one of those kids who tried to dumb it down to look cool (or something approaching cool), who tried to hide the fact that I powered through a book a day, who had stopped asking questions.
Mr. G was a teacher who didn’t just “teach”. He didn’t recite and quiz and discipline and check our notes for accuracy. He did everything in his power to light a spark in students that made them want to learn on their own. Maybe we didn’t see that then, but I can certainly see it now. He gave us permission to question everything, including authority (even his own), because authority is not always right by default. He did an incredible job of giving us the clearest, most accessible, most enlightening answers he could. And that is the greatest gift any student could ask for.
Parents and teachers are teaching kids that asking “Why?” all the time is disruptive and generally a bad thing to do. I propose that we start teaching kids the way Mr. G taught me: Yes, asking “Why?” IS disruptive. And that’s a damn good thing.
What are your thoughts on high school education? Did it work for you? Did you hate it? Did you have your own Mr. G? Let me know in the comments.
I hope you’re enjoying your summer thus far! DFTBA,
P.S. If you’re looking for more on this topic, read The Power of Why by Amanda Lang. It’s going on my newly official list of books teachers and parents must read.
P.P.S. My writing hiatus was longer than anticipated. I got super bored without writing and ideas were starting to get really crowded in my brain. More posts to come!