Learning as the intersection of work and play, part 3: Queries, freedom, and bushwhacking

I’ve been ruminating over this entry for a while now, partially bogged down with work, partially avoiding writing it. The truth is that queries are a new way of saying essential or guiding questions, so I stopped myself from writing because I wasn’t sure how to explain what makes them different to me. Fortunately, I received inspiration from a book called Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby. Her conclusion reiterated the importance of queries as something that I think could reshape many classrooms.

In my last entry, I emphasized the importance of the journey of learning and teaching. The importance of allowing ourselves to wander off the traditional path in order to find a more meaningful, personal route to a checkpoint, which may or may not be where expected to land. I also have spoken previously about my belief in children to be powerful and knowledgeable in a way that we adults often forget. Queries help connect these two beliefs for me.

As a Quaker educator, I use the word query in connection with its Quaker tradition. Quakers often refer to queries as spiritual challenges to the community – a question or series of questions that challenges us to think beyond our basic knowledge and search within ourselves and the community for a deeper, spiritual understanding of our world. As a teacher, I think that queries can be an academic challenge to an individual and a community to reach a more complete understanding of the world.

In practice, a teacher might use a query to challenge the classroom to explore a topic that seems basic on one level, and difficult to comprehend on another. One query that I posed to my students was, “Can we learn how to learn?” Another was, “Why do people tell stories?” In both cases, there is a simple answer, “Yes, we can,” and “To entertain each other.” In each case, there is also a much more complicated answer.

In the first scenario, students explored mindsets while learning how to do origami, being forced to persevere through challenging tasks. They learned about their own strengths and weaknesses, how to work successfully on their own, and how they might utilize the strengths of the class in order to overcome our challenges. The unit combined information about the brain and examples of people who persevered with a personal exploration of the fixed and growth mindset. Students could contextualize their learning with both facts and experience.

The exploration of story telling connected students own understanding and experience with stories to that of a native culture. We read stories from native tribes, we told our own stories, wrote our own stories, challenged ourselves to create our own oral tradition. We became a community of storytellers in order to understand why storytelling is such an important part of any culture.

In both cases, the students developed their own questions as a result of the unit. With origami, they challenged each other to make bigger, smaller, more complex creations – it was a personally and community driven exploration that went beyond the original expectations. With storytelling, students asked about different cultures and different forms of storytelling today, finding new ways to compare, contrast, and comprehend.

Challenging students with big questions has three key purposes.

Queries allow students to contextualize their learning, to take something small and seemingly insignificant on its own and place it within a larger context, a more meaningful journey in which we try to understand the world.

Queries allow for the journey. The question is often framed to the community, insinuating that we are all going to answer it in a different way, but also expecting us to reach some community understandings. This requires sharing ideas, thinking deeply, and reflecting upon each community member’s ideas. There is no one right answer. The process of reaching an understanding is as valuable as the answer itself.

Queries value freedom. Children are valuable as they are, not just as we want them to be. Their view of the world is important, and it is critical that adults recognize this. Posing queries, rather than questions with definite answers, communicates to students that their opinion matters, their voice will be heard, and their ideas are essential to the conversation.

The book Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School follows four early elementary students through a year at schools with strong reputations. Author Carla Shalaby considers these students to be canaries in a coal mine, signaling the systemic issues we have yet to improve. In her final chapter, A Letter to Teachers, she juxtaposes our current classroom management styles with a style that values all students, not just those that meet the typical expectations. She contrasts the current method of excluding students who don’t fit our limited expectation of students with one that values all students. Without explaining it all, her approach asks teachers to be love and give students the freedom that they deserve.

troublemakers

In her description of the freedom and responsibility that students deserve, it is not an all encompassing free pass. Instead, she asks the reader to consider posing questions to the whole class, which gives students more freedom, but also more responsibility to meet the class’s expectations. “Can we wonder, together, how the problem we are seeing in our classroom might be related to a problem we see out in the world? How will we try to heal one another, to address human needs, and to alleviate harms to human beings that we see out in the world?” 

I would probably change the wording a little for my students, but not too much. Imagine giving students the time and responsibility to answer these questions. They embody the work of Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life, it is life itself.”

If we don’t challenge students with queries that dig deep, we limit ourselves in many ways. One is that we limit their ability to see themselves as critical thinkers, as capable of answering big questions. The second is that we limit the opportunity to hear their voices. As Shalaby says, the teacher is the outsider in a classroom of children, not the other way around. In a classroom of children, the restraint of children’s voices is chosen ignorance.

This blog felt a bit less like play, a bit more like serious wandering. The last entries were brisk walks in the woods or strolls by the stream, while this one was bushwhacking through the unknown. I can see a little clearer now, though, and that unbeaten path has given me the experience to know that it was worth it. It is a path I’ll go down again to convince someone else that their children, their students, have voices worth hearing. It has convinced me that helping other teachers challenge their students with queries is something I need to continue exploring.

 

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