Asking Questions

I think I’m starting to understand with increasing clarity that one of my projects in my blogging and tweeting is to represent public amateurism more faithfully. While I find it difficult to articulate precisely what I mean by this, I get close with “learning in the view of others.” Another pass: “expressing the products and emotions associated with not-knowing that are part of learning.”

Part of what I’m interested in is the difficulty of competently representing incompetence. Which is why I’m having fun asking smartly stupid questions (stupidly smart?) about poems. It’s also why my most recent essay was about not knowing why a kid was struggling and not knowing how to help her — and how the not-know passes into a sort of knowing.

(I’ve also come to think that Twitter, as a medium, encourages the performance of expertise. The limited format encourages users to make declarations. There’s just enough room to give an opinion without any reasons, which IRL is what you do if you are (a) an important person who everyone trusts and believes or (b) a busy individual who just doesn’t have time for this shit. This is what the vast majority of tweets sound like to me. Trying to find ways to represent the exact opposite of this attitude within the constraints of the medium is fun and challenging to me.)

I’m not promising that I’ll never act like I know a lot about something. But for now, playing with amateurism is a blast.

***

There’s a way all this is coming through in my teaching: I’m just begging kids to ask questions in class these days. You finished a problem? Try to ask a question. You don’t know how to do something? Ask a question. You’re stuck? Ask a question.

Is this new? Don’t all teachers encourage kids to ask questions? I’m worried that I’m in strawman territory, but it seems to me that there’s a line of teacher talk that discourages a certain type of question. I’m talking about being proud about not answering questions; “my kids ask me for help, but I just grin at them and walk away”; talk about kids persevering through difficulty and not just screaming for help at the first sign of challenge.

I don’t know about you, but if a kid is screaming for help then I’m happy. It’s when the questions dry up that I start getting nervous.

Of course, learned helplessness is a thing. I mean, of course it is, right? I’m not entirely sure that I’ve seen it. Maybe once or twice. In general the questions my kids ask seem entirely reasonable to me. Is this right is a great question to ask when you’re getting the hang of a new procedure — especially when you’re used to getting things wrong in math, and you’re finally getting a foothold.

You know what it means to persevere? Perseverance often means asking a question, even if it’s amateurish and doesn’t make you sound smart, because asking questions is how you learn new stuff. And a lot of the time you learn new stuff by getting answers to your questions.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots and lots of times in my classes when I decline to answer a question. If kids are doing good thinking, I’m happy to decline to interrupt it. If we’re going to have a debate, I don’t want to deflate it. I think that the source of talk about not answering questions must come from our desire to subvert the expectation that answering is the only appropriate response to a question.

(By the way, this seems to happen all the time in teaching. Group A only talks about Practice X. Group B objects to the focus on Practice X, instead boosts Y. Group A replies: of course we only talk about X! The profession only talks about Y. Evidence: you only talk about Y. Group B replies accordingly and the cycle never ends.)

You know what’s the best part of begging kids to ask you questions? They ask a lot more questions.

***

There are rewards — tangible and not — for being an expert about teaching. Amateurism has its rewards too. Like that part of you that’s always been a bit afraid to feel stupid? You get to slowly chip away at it. Publicly declaring what you don’t know is powerful, maybe more powerful than your ability to grit through a problem. People these days have so many answers, and I just want more questions.

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