“Questions are Crucial”: Some Thoughts on Organizing My Upcoming Classes

According to Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do:

In the learning literature and in the thinking of the best teachers, questions play an essential role in the process of learning and modifying mental models. Questions help us construct knowledge. They point to holes in our memory structures and are critical for indexing the information that we attain when we develop an answer for that inquiry. Some cognitive scientists think that questions are so important that we cannot learn until the right one has been asked: if memory does not ask the question, it will not know where to index the answer. The more questions we ask, the more ways we can index a thought in memory. Better indexing creates greater flexibility, easier recall, and richer understanding.

“When we can successfully stimulate our students to ask their own questions, we are laying the foundation for learning,” one professor told us in a theme we heard repeatedly. “We define the questions that our course will help them to answer,” another reminded us, “but we want them, along the way, to develop their own set of rich and important questions about our discipline and our subject matter.” (31)

“Questions are crucial” is the third in a four-item list of what Ken Bain and his colleagues observed of the general attitudes toward learning that highly effective college teachers evince.  The other three, in order, are “knowledge is constructed, not received,” “mental models change slowly,” and “caring is crucial.” This is not a new finding on the pedagogical significance of questions–as Bain notes, research in learning, cognition, and memory has supported all four of these attitudes for some time now–and it’s not new to me–questions serve centrally to frame class discussions, writing, examinations, etc. But Bain’s book has me thinking about the role of questions again and a little more globally than before.

[Back story: I am trying to redesign two different courses, a literature course that I want to better match the segmentation of the English major (which I wrote about here and have thought about much more since then) and a sophomore-level writing class called “Interdisciplinary Composition,” which I was not happy with the first (and only) time I taught it, for lots of reasons.]

Specifically, I am trying to think about redefining “units” along the lines of central questions that we will pursue in these units and using those questions as unit titles, rather than broad “subject” areas.  For instance, rather than calling the first unit of the writing course “Disciplinarity,” which probably means zilch to my students, I am working on constructing a couple questions that will frame our inquiry in that unit and can be used to title it. The latest draft of that is “What is a discipline? Where do you stand in your discipline (major) as a writer?”

As I put that down here, it doesn’t sound to me like such a great leap forward.  But I do think/hope that if I can set the course up around meaningful questions (either meaningful on their face or which become meaningful as we work through them), doing so will help students think of the course differently: not as “something to get out of the way,” in the case of the writing class, but as “something useful to help me think about what my major and what writing in my major are all about.”  The trick seems to me, then, to make the questions meaningful and relevant to the student’s experience. And that “trick” is probably not an easy one — hence my ongoing rumination about the questions we need to address in that class.

In the writing class, I have outlined the central questions the class will ask (though I still need to revise these), but in the literature class, which is called “Late 19th Century American Literature,” I haven’t yet begun to articulate the central questions.  I know that we will doing a unit on technology and society (readings: “Life in the Iron-mills,” A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Looking Backward, and maybe a couple short pieces), and the questions that emerge in the readings ought to be sufficiently meaningful to the students, since they seem, in ways, perennial, as exemplified in all the to-do about contemporary technology and its dangers–witness Nicholas Carr, Mark Bauerlein, and so on–or its liberatory potential (sorry, no links here). I’ll be thinking about what those questions are over the next couple weeks before the semester starts, but it occurs to me that we, my students and I, might also develop the questions as a class, to some extent.

This frame-the-whole-class-around-questions is not at all new to many teachers, but in my literary studies classes, often chronology or genre has really been the primary framing device, as it was, come to think about it, in my undergraduate and graduate classes. Of course, there are plenty of interesting questions that emerge under those frames and in relation to specific texts, and if you love and live in the field, there’s just intrinsic interest to literary and cultural study. But I have begun to wonder if the students don’t wonder what it all is supposed to add up to, in the end. It’s too easy for things to atomize into genre or text-based units.  In my composition classes, on the other hand, what has structured the classes and assignments has been primarily sets of skills that students need to attain and/or hone.  That’s probably going to remain the same, but I want to try grouping the skills under key questions that are meaningful for the students themselves.

My reflection on questions is now ended, answering the question, “when will this blog entry end?”

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