I am convinced that the most significant question a teacher can ask a student is, “What do you want to learn?” It is a simple question, but it is not often asked – and the implications run deep. Of course, the question takes many forms – “What do you need to know?” “Where do you want to begin?” “What strikes you about this text?” – all variations on the same revolutionary question that assumes that students want to learn and can be trusted with their learning.
I once heard of a multi-day workshop in leadership that unfolded from a single question, literally the only words the teacher spoke on day one, “How shall we proceed?’
“What do you want to learn?” To a high schooler used to traditional schooling, the question can raise suspicion. “Aren’t you supposed to know?” some think. “Does it matter?” others ask. This latter is particularly troubling to a progressive educator because it defines the student role in school as inert and passive, as if the curriculum could not respond to the curiosities of students even if it wanted to. And in some schools it can’t. The curriculum takes on a life of its own, becomes paramount, and must be satisfied regardless of student interest. But interest in learning does matter.
“What do you want to learn?” communicates a value to students. It says that the curriculum is flexible, that it is responsive to the human beings in the room, and that it is worth doing because of human endeavor, not institutional mandate. The question puts student learning front and center, and it engages students in the daily business of learning. Because all students, whether they know it or not, ask themselves, “Can I use this? Is this about me?” In some way, in order to engage students, the answer must be “Yes.” If it is not, it doesn’t matter what is taught – and what is taught won’t matter. Shakespeare becomes lifeless, solving for x becomes useless, and mitochondrial DNA might as well be alien. Actually, alien DNA would be exceptionally relevant – but, again, only because it would put us, human beings, in perspective. Point being, “What do you want to learn?” gives students a personal stake in their learning.
For far too many students, the only stake they have in school is the grades they receive. That’s what ends up mattering, because the learning itself doesn’t do as much for them and doesn’t have as great an effect on their lives in the short term as their grades do. But it should. First and foremost, learning should be immediately useful and obviously relevant.
I once taught a journalism class that took as its primary project the production of the school newspaper. The student staff chose the articles, researched the stories, wrote the copy, and laid out the paper. My job was to teach the skills and understandings necessary to do so ethically and well. The course was graded but all students began with an A and it took real missteps to earn something less. The idea was to take grades out of the equation because what is written for the newspaper should be published free of coercion. The prevailing interest in writing the news should be the good of the community, not personal gain. And it worked. One of my students said to me, “I have never had a class in which I tried harder, learned more, and in which grades meant as little.” But I spent a long time thinking about why it worked. I believe now that the students in my journalism class learned without concern for their grade because they knew that what they wrote mattered – learning to write accurately and ethically was of immediate use and obvious relevance. And my students were asked the question, “What do you want to learn?” In this case, it was more specifically, “What do you want to write? And what do you need to know to write it well?”
Projects are certainly one way to ask the question, “What do you want to learn?” but they aren’t the only way. The key is to trust students to be in charge of their learning, to have confidence that they know what they need to know, and to take for granted that they want to learn.
One of my colleagues in the Science Department tells me, “I don’t want my students to learn about science. I want them to act like scientists.” In his hands, science is not a subject matter, it is a methodology for discovering how the world works. As scientists, his students ask questions, form theories, design experiments, and analyze results – and that leads them to ask more questions. Along the way, he teaches them what they need to know to run their inquiry well and arrive at their own answers. The process is fundamentally experiential and we are well versed in the experiential model of learning, but it begins differently – with questions to students: What do you want to learn? Where should we begin? How shall we proceed?
With these questions, education comes alive.