Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Vacant Minds...Teaching Kids to Fill 'em

Have you ever asked a student a question and seen this vacant stare back at you, as though you were speaking a foreign language?   There is nothing there.  There is no one home. We call this vacant complacency.  Alf used to say, "Earth to Kate...?"  There really  is hope despite the vacancy.   Metacognitive research shows that you can model thought process and teach kids to think.  It's a good thing. 

Over the  dozen years I have been a librarian, I have heard some fairly dumb questions.  Some claim that there's no such thing as a dumb question.  I beg to differ.  Here's a dumb one:  "You have any good books?"  To which I replied,  "Well, Johnny, I have 13,000 books.  I'm sure one of them is good."

 A couple of years ago I took a comical look at these [dumb] questions asked of librarians and really suggested that we need to model the thought process, rather than answer the questions.  (Read this article here.)  In actuality, I love these questions because it gave me an opportunity to banter with the student and point out how silly the question was.  Here's another:  "Do you have that pink book?"  I pointed out that he had five minutes to find a book, there were about 5000 fiction books, so she would have to scan the spines of about 1000 books to find the pink one.  She got the point. 
 As we address the learning needs of the millennial student, we really need to attack the ability to ask great questions.  This is so imperative to a nation that is trying to retain it's cutting edge.  We need a generation who can ask good questions--the right questions which will compel change, inspire investigation and encourage achievement.  This metacognitive skill should begin in elementary school. 

If assignments are answerable on Google, they are void of higher level thought.  Ask yourself how many of the assignments that make their way into the library for "research" could be answered on a mobile device?  We need assignments which require the kids to create the questions, driven by the essential question.  So, you say... kids don't know how to ask good questions?  They didn't know how to tie their own shoes, but we don't tie them for them when they go to school.   They need to be taught.  Here is one tool that a local librarian and her teachers created to help the cause:

Librarian Laurie called this the Wonder Grid and it works to begin the journey of letting kids create their own questions for research.  This document can be used to inspire kids to ask good open-ended questions.  Notice how these question starters would likely lead to questions unanswerable on Google.   

In our local Inquiry Curriculum,  we encourage student-generated questions because the kids then "own" the task of finding the answers.  So rather than assigning the old "mammal" report, the teachers now have a big EQ such as: What would your mammal say to the Bronx Zoo board of directors about living there?  Or, "Who really deserves the national holiday on October 12th?  What are the problems and perils of your country?  What advice would you give to Abraham Lincoln?  What would you pack in your conestoga if you were heading west via Manifest Destiny?   If you were living in Europe in the 1700's would you have left the comforts of home for America?   How does where you live impact how you live?   If you could invite [braham Lincoln] to dinner, what would you talk about? 

As the students approach the research task, if questions need to be generated--in a group-- they will use a grid such as this to guide them to good research endeavors.  A by-product of collaboration is that the low-level learners benefit from the thought process modeled by their peers.   Let's teach our students to ask great questions.   Let's put our own assignments up against the litmus test for low-level thought:  Is this answerable on Google?

I would speculate that Steve Jobs was a master at asking the right questions.  Perhaps this is one way we can remember him.  Ask the right questions and impact change.   

No comments:

Post a Comment