The One Great Question All Great Teachers Ask
Every school mission statement I have ever read always includes some derivation of the idea that school must help students become independent, life-long learners.
It is certainly true that a great many teachers do help students become life-long learners. Many by exemplifying their passion for a particular subject or just their passion for learning, but to be frank my experience seems to indicate that very little of this independent learning development is actually designed into teaching.
In light of that, I observed a powerful moment recently while coaching a teacher who is still fairly early in her career. A student approached to ask for help with a problem during an independent work session in her math class. She seemed as though she was going to answer the student but, instead, she instinctively (and brilliantly) asked, “well, what questions do you think I would ask you?”
I know it was instinctive because in discussion, even with my prompting, this interaction went unremarked. Finally I brought this moment to her attention and with a little more prompting she was able to see this instinctively powerful moment as the meaningful interchange it was.
Learning is driven by the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ and ‘how comes’ that are often supplied by others. Self-driven learning accesses these same questions but as internalized, habitualized reactions to all the emotional, intellectual and sensory stimuli with which we are constantly bombarded. Simply put, when some stimuli sticks to the self-driven learner, curiosity is piqued, and they’re off!
The trick, of course, is to move dependency to independency, which is no simple matter. It is slow learning that takes plenty of time. In this case, this particular teacher, like many really wonderful teachers do, saw the value of what she did and made a commitment to make this great instinctual re-action a part of her established practice of intentional action. “How,” she asked, “can I make this work with every student.”
Because I had been working with this teacher for a while, and because I had not just been asking her questions, rather I had asking her to apply and reapply those questions that I had been asking her over and over again, I was able to get simply to the point where I could use that great question and be, for at least that moment, a great teacher.
“Well,” I asked, “what questions do you think I would ask you?”