The Most Disruptive Three-Letter Word You Can Say in School

Opinion |

The Most Disruptive Three-Letter Word You Can Say in School

One educator comes away from a conference with questions, not answers

By Joan Young     Mar 26, 2014

The Most Disruptive Three-Letter Word You Can Say in School

At the recent ASCD14 Annual Conference in sunny Los Angeles, educators converged to ask important questions about what it means to teach and more importantly, learn, in this rapidly changing world both inside and outside of the classroom.

Takeaways from three main sessions highlighted the one question that is both the most important--and most disruptive--question you can ask in school: Why? Why are we teaching this way?

Let go of teaching about the traditional ABC’s and of demanding that students become content “experts.” The relevant letters, pointed out speaker Daniel Pink, author of several bestselling books, are the PQR’s, or “Persuasion, Questioning, and Relevance.”

Photo by Amber Teamann

P is for persuasion

With the rise of the Internet, educators simply don’t have an information advantage any longer over students. Our new role is to train and empower our students to ask great questions and help them develop the skills to critically research and develop deeper answers to those questions.

We must find new ways to “move people.”

Pink highlighted his nouvelle ABCs: attunement, buoyancy and clarity, which are valuable for all learners and particularly for us, educators, as we attempt to influence students, parents, and colleagues, every day.

Attunement facilitates perspective taking, a skill we often try to build within our students but forget to practice ourselves. Pink also discussed how a greater sense of power can interfere with our ability to “attune.” This brings up more questions for me as I consider the power differential in the classroom and in schools, overall. If I give more power and autonomy to my students, will I be better able to tune into their needs?

Next, Pink talked about buoyancy, which I relate to resilience, and the importance of using interrogative self-talk to incite action steps. About to take on a challenge? Instead of telling yourself, “You can do this!” ask instead, “Can you do this?” Questioning will bring up other past successes. You can cite evidence to yourself that you can do it.

We can teach our students this strategy of questioning so that they develop their own rationale for action and develop confidence in themselves.

Finally, Pink talked about clarity, the ability to think and curate critically. Perhaps this will be one of the greatest skills we will need to teach our learners which is where the “Q” in questioning comes in.

Q is for questioning

Pink shared the technique of motivational interviewing, a way of getting beyond the resistance and getting an individual to spring into action. I love this method of asking a reluctant student or colleague about a task he/she doesn’t want to do. He begins with a question:

“On a scale of 1-10, how ready are you to….[insert here something they do NOT want to do]?”

Once they give the rating, which is often higher than we expect, ask them:

“Hmm.. I’m curious about that. Why did you say, ‘three’?”

When we ask them about their rating, students will often cite reasons and talk themselves into doing what they need to do, breaking through their own resistance.

This kind of questioning is powerful in learning. As kids reflect more, they discover the barriers they often put in their own way.

Pink sent us off with a challenge for the next week:

Have two fewer conversations about ‘How?’ and two more conversations about ‘Why?’”

For more on Daniel Pink’s talk, check out Joe Mazza’s post with a full archive here.

R is for Relevance

There is an imperative that we need to do better because we are losing so many students along the journey of education. Both Sir Ken Robinson and Dr. Russell Quaglia shared grim statistics about how many kids feel disenfranchised--like school isn’t for them, like no one, including their teachers, cares if they aren’t there.

Compliance vs. engagement was a hot topic, as was discovering who you want to be and following that passion, what Sir Ken Robinson calls, finding your, “element.” Sir Ken went on to remind us that the basics of education are not disciplines, but purposes.

He asked another “why” question about the purpose of education today compared to the past. Why are we doing this in the first place?

How often is this question asked at staff meetings? How often do we ask ourselves this question as we plan our lessons?

Although I enjoyed Daniel Pink and Sir Ken Robinson, my favorite was Dr. Russell Quaglia, who talked about the critical importance of student voice and relevance.

Here’s where he hooked me: Why did you become an educator?

Quaglia went on to talk about the role of educators: to help kids develop aspirations, the ability to dream and to set goals for the future while being inspired in the present to get there. He described the conditions that make a difference and shared sobering statistics: Only 45% of students say they are valued members of their school communities. (More of these findings on student voice are shared in this report.)

Quaglia shared eight conditions that make a difference here. These conditions fall into three categories: Self worth, engagement and purpose. And the key question here is: How do we manage to reach students, develop their self worth, and engage them with meaningful learning?

  • Build trust: Focus on strengths. Be real, Quaglia urged us! Focus on the things kids do right. If we, as parents, see a “C” on a report card with all “A’s” , what do we address first? Let’s be honest with ourselves. Many of us hyper-focus on the lower grade or the deficits instead of mobilizing a student’s strengths. Ask kids: Who do they most want to be?
  • Engagement: What is it all about? The delicate balance of interest and opportunities. We need to help kids discover their interests and then provide opportunities for them to engage in deep learning. Quaglia referred to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi and the importance of flow.
  • Amplify creativity and curiosity: For both learners and teachers, we have blunted these in schools. How might we reawaken the natural states of creativity and curiosity that we begin with?
  • Purpose: How do we help students discover the best decisions for themselves and then act confidently to achieve their goals?

A last challenge

Quaglia sent us off with a challenge: "To reflect on why you get up everyday, to never stop learning from students, and spend more time with kids on where they’re going and less on where they are coming from.”

As you go about your work as an educator, I encourage you to steal some time away to reflect and ask more “why” questions.

  • Why is my classroom set up this way?
  • Why am I using xyz tech tool?
  • Do my students even know why we’re all here?

Don’t be surprised, however, if these kinds of questions make others uncomfortable. Why, they’re meant to disrupt.

For visual representations of Quaglia’s quotes, see this post from Krissy Venosdale.

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