I have read and heard a great deal of advice on how to ask good questions of students, but nobody has ever told me how to get students to ask good questions. Since all good thinking begins with a good question, it strikes me that if we are ultimately trying to create "active lifelong learners" with "critical thinking skills" and an ability to "think outside the box," it might be best to start by getting students to ask better questions.
The best questions force students to challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions and see their own underlying biases. Oftentimes, the answer to a good question is irrelevant—the question is an insight in itself. The only answer to the best questions is another good question. The best questions send students on rich and meaningful lifelong quests, question after question after question.
Unfortunately, such great questions are rarely asked by students, especially in large introductory courses, such as my 400-student “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.” Much more common are questions such as, "What do we need to know for this test?" This may be the worst question of all. It makes education into a relatively meaningless game of grades rather than a meaningful exploration of the world.
In all fairness, students are conditioned to ask it by the lecture format. This mainstay of introductory courses teaches students to sit in neat rows and to believe and defer to the teacher. Tests often measure little more than how well students can recite what they have been told.
My frustration over this led me to create a learning environment conducive to helping students ask better questions—ones that create lifelong learners. In my introductory anthropology class, students are asked to understand how the world works. But rather than me telling them how it works, students work together to design a two-hour simulation of the last 500 years of world history, using props for currencies, natural resources and other elements that recreate the world system.
A world map is superimposed onto a map of the classroom, and students are asked to imagine themselves living in the cultural and physical environment that maps onto them. Each student becomes an expert on a specific locale, such as the economic systems of the Pacific Islands or the political systems in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Questions loom over every aspect of the creation of this simulation. I am in the wonderful but awkward position of not knowing exactly what I am doing but blissfully learning along the way. My job becomes less about teaching and more about encouraging students to join me on the quest. The journey extends beyond the classroom, facilitated by a custom Web platform that fosters community and media literacy through the integration of a wiki, blogs, mobile phones and other applications.
Students record the simulation on 20 digital video cameras, and we collectively edit the material into one 20-minute world history video. During the last week of class, we watch the video together. By then, it seems as if we have the whole world and one humanity right before our eyes—filled with its cultural and economic differences, and challenges for the future. We see ourselves as its co-creators and realize that the future is up to us. It is in this environment that even the worst questions take on all the characteristics of the best: What do we need to know for this test?
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