Tuesday, July 26, 2011

All Your Answers Will Be Questioned

I’m on to my next course and how I love it! I like teaching anywhere, anytime, but between getting to teach in my own music room at the school, in my native language without a translator and with my favorite subject—the marriage of Jazz and Orff—I am simply in heaven. And this being Jazz II, I can jump right in at a high level, assume certain prior knowledge and get down to work with well-trained teachers and great musicians. What a pleasure!

In a go-around, someone said they just came from an Orff training in which the instructors said, “All your questions will be answered.” And I thought, “Hmm. That’s the opposite of this course. Here all your answers will be questioned. And mine, too.”

In a June graduation speech I heard, the speaker told of the three questions he had posted in his office:

1.     What? 
2.     So What?
3.     Now What?

Brilliant! "What" means first doing something with the students and then having them recall what exactly they have done. This is an important step in digestion, converting the foodstuff of experience to the conscious assimilation that will make the learning part of our bones and blood. Many times I have providing thrilling experiences for my students, but without that moment of reflection, neither they nor I are clear enough about how this is contributing to their growth and development. Learning may—and often should— begin in the hand and the heart, but it needs the cool reflection of the head to complete the loop. Ending a class with the question “What have we done?” and passing through it again in our spoken memory is an excellent strategy for strengthening those connections being made in the brain. And not just in the classroom. So many of my private journal entries are simply an account of what happened during the day before making any comments on it.

But let’s not stop there. “So what?” asks the students to reflect on the possible meaning of the experience. It can be the teacher’s intended meaning—“By studying Manifest Destiny, we have a lens through which to view colonial expansion that makes is more understandable.By learning the 12-bar blues pattern on the xylophones, we can now understand the music differently when we listen and also play a variety of blues.” Or it can be a personal meaning. “After reading this book, I understood my father so much better.” “The lyrics in this blues really spoke to me. I could relate to the situation.”

It’s a bold question to ask and one schools rarely do, being more concerned with simply parroting back the right answer without stopping to ask why it’s worthy to learn. A teacher asking “So what? What did the thing we just learned mean to you?” is vulnerable to the honest answer, “Nothin’.” So the habitual asking of “so what” puts pressure on the teacher to always teach within the framework of meaning and context, sometimes surprising the students themselves by asking them to discover a meaning in the material not immediately obvious to them.

But again, why stop there? “Now what?” is the crowning question. “Now that you know about the kind of thinking summarized in Manifest Destiny that caused so much cruelty, suffering and injustice, what are you going to do with that information? How can you apply it to the stories in today’s newspaper? How can you educate others to drop their harmful thinking that God is only on their side and widen their listening to and acceptance of other ways?" "Now that you know how to play the 12-bar blues, can you improvise and compose your own in your particular style?"  "Now that you’ve heard some great blues lyrics, can you tell your own story through this form?” Any time you ask the students to apply knowledge in a novel situation, to create a project, to express their own understanding through poetry, art, dance, drama, music, you help them realize that anything they learn or accomplish in class is not the end, but the beginning. “Now what?” puts the responsibility back on them to do something novel, useful and meaningful with what they learn.

So beware of narrow educational practices and policies that go no further than the “whats,” that promise that “all your questions will be answered.” (Or more accurately and worse yet, "all our questions—ie, the testmakers—will be answered.") Train students to ask teachers “So what?” and train teachers to ask students “Now what?” When students enter a class and the teacher says, “All your answers will be questioned,” they know they are in an authentic educational venture. 

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