At minute 9:28 in the above TED talk, Charles Leadbeater, who is particularly interested in the innovation that comes of meeting great needs in under-resourced school environments, talks about one school program in one of the poorer communities in Brazil and their habit of beginning each day with a question. Leadbeater asks us to, “Imagine an educational system that started from questions, not from knowledge to be imparted. Or started from a game, not from a lesson. Or started from the premise that you have to engage people first before you can possibly teach them.” I have and I do, and I believe Leadbeater is exactly right in what he is suggesting.
Something pernicious happens right about the time students graduate from school. It comes of a constellation of forces and societal expectations, not one of which is wholly responsible but each of which contributes to coerce a transformation in students, a turning away. NB: by students I mean learners and by school I mean a learning environment. It comes about as a “natural” and expected step forward, an advancement in the development of the self, sometime between high school and graduate school, adolescence and adulthood. At some point, as the result of our educational system learners are expected to become knowers.
Sir Ken Robinson, the noted creativity thinker and eminently convincing proponent of sea-change in education, points out that if you didn’t know any better, upon looking at the American educational system in 2010 and asking yourself, “What is it designed to do?” you would have to conclude that it is primarily designed to produce university professors – that is, to reproduce itself. Our educational system produces knowers, not learner.
In fact, there is a significant societal stigma that attends the notion of a learner. It connotes beginner, amateur, inexperience, even naivete and ignorance, as in language learner as opposed to language expert. At a meeting I attended recently of the local beekeeping community I heard one new member use the phrase “still just learning” to mean that she lacked the answers she needed. She said, to the best of my recollection and not exactly quoted, “I am still just learning about beekeeping, so I want to ask the experts in the club…”. It was a beautiful moment of communication between club members, because one of the more knowledgeable members addressed her, saying, “I have been doing this a long time, but I am no expert. I am still just learning, too,” to which we all laughed. Of course we all understood both perspectives. “I am just beginning, so how would I know?” and “I have been doing this long enough to know what I don’t know.” Whatever your perspective, it is clear that most true experts know that the salient experience in becoming an expert is becoming acquainted with more and more challenging questions, not answers.
As much as I value questions and as much as I think about and try to understand that a teacher should strive to become a master learner, not a master knower, I too have felt the uncomfortable compulsion to give an infirm answer to a student’s question before admitting I didn’t know. Most of the time I can control myself and I am proud of my courageous, unknowledgeable response. “I don’t know the answer to that,” I proclaim, when I am feeling strong enough. But it is there, the insecurity, the remnant of the societal norm that I resist. “I am the teacher,” I think to myself when I am feeling weak. “I should know.” So, what is it about mainstream education in this country today that so requires teachers to be knowers and students to be the only learners? I believe the answer lies in our conception of knowledge.
If we understand knowledge to be an external thing, a thing acquired and kept, as a material object, then it follows that there are those with more and those with less. It is a materialistic model that regards knowledge as a commodity to be bought or bartered, as in, “I have it, and I will give it to you for a price. I will sell it to you.” In this model, knowledge flows from teacher to student, like the filing of Yeats’s famous pail. Students are customers and teachers are venders. The relationship is clearly defined and learning is the agreed upon result of the commercial arrangement. There are all kinds of problems that flow from this model – and they all have to do with the common marketplace promise of “satisfaction guaranteed.”
If, alternatively, we understand knowledge to be inherent in the learner – something a student already has, latent within him, then what some people have more of and some less is access to self-knowledge, and the teacher’s challenge becomes, not increasing the flow of knowledge through the conduit, like a hose, but evoking insight. In this model of education, there is no transaction of material and no commercial arrangement. Students are questers, seekers, capable of effecting their own transformation of learning and of answering their own questions. The teacher becomes a guide, and a facilitator – asking questions to shepherd student to their own answers.
It is a radical shift in our conception of education, but it is not new. The Quaker wisdom tradition allows for the presence of an Inner Teacher, an inherent source of knowledge and guidance that requires evocation, not augmentation. Quaker community members strive, not to supply answers, but to ask questions that help a friend or colleague hear and understand what their inner teacher is saying. The notion is clear: knowledge resides in all of us, latent perhaps but there. Guides, mentors, and teachers ask questions to evoke the answers that are already there.
I confess merely a passing familiarity with the tenets of Quaker spirituality, but so be it – in that, as in so many other things, I am “still just a learner.”
This is Wendell Berry on the same topic. Imagine what education – indeed this country – would be if we could embrace the radical notion that what you need you already have.
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.