Is the Spirit of Inquiry Dead?

Why is it that students stop asking questions about the world in which they live? Why is it socially acceptable not to know something, and not to be the slightest bit interested in finding out the answer? Why does the spirit of inquiry die?

In the centre where I work, we deal with students from Grade 000 right through to Grade 12, and there is a clear trend that can be observed: the younger ones are more interested in engaging with their worlds while the older students are quite content just to sit back and get information spoon-fed to them. Content is probably not the best word to use, because I do not think they are at all contented by being in classes, but they are apathetic enough not to want to engage with the world around them. If something doesn’t influence them directly, then they don’t care.

It’s easy to see why school can seem agonisingly dull to young men and women: it’s slow, it’s repetitive and, for the most part, it involves adults standing in front of them trying to convince them to listen to whatever is being presented attentively, because it’s going to be in a test later. And if you pass that test (which means getting more than 40% in some cases), then we move on. No one asks about the other 60% you missed. There’s no halting to get to the bottom of the content that hasn’t yet been grasped. No. There’s a curriculum to get through, and we’ve covered that section and now we’re moving on. You’ll just have to make up for that 60% at a later stage.

This would be bad enough if this happened once or twice, but the fact is that this is an almost daily routine for high school students. Arrive, be spoken at for 8 hours and then go home to go over the work that was spoken at you only to have the whole thing repeated again the next day. Anyone who has a dislike for international travel will know what it’s like to be stuck on a plane for 5+ hours. It’s awful. And even travel at least offers the promise of an exciting destination at the other side, and there’s food.

Imagine taking an international flight every day for twelve years. I know we’ve all been to school and we got through it, but imagine going back. I know many of us claim that we wish we were back at school without the worries and the stresses of adult life to bring us down. We long for the ease of life school presented.

I don’t. I hated school. I hated the routine, the apparently pointless rules (how can there be a corridor at school where students aren’t allowed to walk?) and I was frustrated in many of my lessons. I look at the loads the students at my school have to balance and I do not wish myself back there for a second. And yet, I am responsible, in part, for perpetuating many of the things I disliked so terribly at school. Somehow in the years since I left school as a student and returned as a teacher, I forgot how awful some of the practices were. I can say with an honesty that makes my stomach churn that in many ways I have become one of those teachers who did the things I hated so much when I was at school

I can start listing excuses about pressures, and deadlines and curricula and being able to measure progress and stress etc., but the fact remains that I am feeding a system with which I fundamentally disagree. In doing this, I am directly responsible for crushing the spirit of inquiry I long to see in my students.

When school becomes all about getting through content and preparing for tests and assignments, when the process of learning is driven by results rather than by a sense of discovery and wonder, when we focus on the things that actually are going to have very little relevance in life beyond school, we kill the desire for knowledge. Students get trained not to care about a task unless it’s for marks, and who can blame them? When you have 8 teachers all giving you assignments on top of sporting, social and family commitments, you need to be practical with the time you have. If something is not going to give you a tangible reward, then it is, effectively, a waste of your time.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point here. What I want to do, which I think is often forgotten in blogs like this, is posit ways that schools need to change if we’re going to start remedying the problem that has been created.

First and foremost, there needs to be a de-emphasis of marks and results. I would love to see terms that are completely assessment free. Work will be done, of course, but marks and quantifiable data will not happen at all. I think that when this starts at first, many students will bow out or become disengaged, because they have been programmed not to care. However, I believe that after a while—and with the right kind of curriculum in place—they will start to buy in. To coin a modern acronym, FOMO (fear of missing out) will settle on some students and they’ll start to participate, not because they have to, but because they want to. And that has to be the most critical element in rekindling a spirit of inquiry. When students are self-motivated to be involved, they can do extraordinary things. I challenge anyone to find a student who supposedly ‘cannot study’ or ‘can’t remember anything’ and ask them about something they have a vested interest in. Get them to tell you the leading goal scorers in the current UEFA season, or to show you how complex their Minecraft world is, or to talk about their favourite music and soon you will see that they definitely can remember things and often with astonishing detail.

Imagine harnessing their field of interest  and channelling it into learning. I don’t believe for one second that this can ever be achieved by giving students the conveyor-belt treatment. We need to take a risk, ditch the assessing and measuring and give students the chance to re-engage because they want to do so.

Secondly, and probably lastly for this blog entry, we need to find a way to boost individual confidence. Something happens between the ages of 10 and 14 that causes many young people to stop believing in themselves. They become self-conscious about their work, how they look, what their voice sounds like or how others perceive them. School needs to make a concerted effort to find ways to celebrate individuals. Telling students that they are unique and they matter has very little consequence if we don’t mirror this in our practice. I think that during the terms where we’re not assessing, we should be giving students the opportunity to be their weird and wonderful selves and to help them celebrate it. Bumbling along through a set curriculum only reinforces the need to fit in or be ostracised. Helping students to find their talents and applauding individuality will not only boost confidence and help creativity, but will encourage community. If this were to happen, I believe we would see students who are more excited to give ideas a go, to explore, to venture opinions and I believe bullying would become a thing of the past. I believe that confidence breeds inquiry, because people will not be scared of being wrong, and others will not victimise people for being wrong, but will try to find solutions together.

Last week I spoke about classrooms being microcosms for the world we want to see and I stand by that opinion. Imagine what the world would be like if the two scenarios I outlined here rippled out into society. A genuine spirit of inquiry, a thirst for knowing more and a sense of confidence to attempt, to try, to probe is what will move civilisation forward. It is the solution to problems that have not even arisen yet and it is, I believe, the only way to start moving towards a more peaceful accepting world.

The sooner we get our students off the production-line, the better.

Talking Politics

The headline for this post might have turned many of you away immediately. It’s one of those established social rules: no talking about religion or politics at the dinner table. I suspect many of you believe that this should extend to other realms too. My apologies, then, for choosing to broach this topic on what is meant to be a place where I talk about matters educational and which I’m sure you may have felt was a sanctuary where you could escape from such matters.

So, why politics then?

Perhaps I should frame this conversation by pointing out that I mean to speak about a very specific topic, or should I say, individual, within politics: Bernie Sanders. Again, this may also prompt a number of you to close the tab, but that’s ok. I need to chat about this, because it’s important to me.

Now, firstly some of you may be wondering what a teacher in a little town in South Africa has to say about a politician running for presidential candidacy in the United States. You may wonder why I care, or perhaps you’re thinking, ‘What does he know?’ and that final question is exactly the point of this blog: I know rather a lot about it, actually.

Thanks to the internet, I have been able to watch a little-known senator rise through the ranks to become a feasible challenger to the candidate who seemed a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination. I have been able to listen to speeches, read transcripts, follow Periscope feeds of people at rallies, follow tweets and observe the entire process. I completed a quiz which allows one to take stances on a variety of pressing issues and then rank the issues in terms of personal importance. It took about 20 minutes to complete and in the end, I had a 93% match to Sen. Sanders. Thus, I feel very comfortable endorsing him or speaking about him, not because I am stirred by his speeches or charmed by his rhetoric, but because we share common ground on matters which are important to both of us.

Now, having read that last paragraph, remind yourself again that I am sitting in South Africa and most of the time, I have a fairly lacklustre internet connection. Nevertheless, I can find things out for myself, I can get involved as much as I’m allowed to (I’ll be honest, if I could send $27, I would) and I can form opinions. I am genuinely excited about the message Sen. Sanders is spreading, because it is, I believe, the true solution to shifting power to where it needs to be, to fixing systems which I believe have become fundamentally flawed and because, most importantly, it sends a message to the rest of the world. If the United States can bring about a shift that is so monumental, if the voices of those who have felt marginalised for so long are seen to have been heard and to have made a real change, think about how the rest of the world will respond. Even if Sen. Sanders does not become the Democratic candidate or become President of the United States, I think his campaign has sent a shockwave that has resounded not just across North America, but across the world. People are more important than they are often lead to believe.

As an educator, it is exciting for me to watch how people react to the realisation that their voice matters; that they can bring about the change they believe in. By studying social media and its ability to both distort the truth and reveal it, students can be shown the importance of being a critical consumer of information. Whether the allegations about biased news reporting are true or not, this election season has shown that where people want information to spread, they do not need the support of major news corporations to do it for them. Our students are seeing this. They are learning that they have the capacity to spread a positive message, that they can, quite literally, reach the entire world in a heartbeat.

The message this campaign has sent to the established media is also telling. Again, I do not wish to take any stance regarding my views on corporate news stations, but I want to point out that the model for spreading information is changing before our eyes. There are many, many more windows into the rest of the world than there ever were before and all of us need to pause to take stock of this. Teachers especially need to show students how to look at media objectively, to search for the facts, to find the truth when it is so often obscured. I believe that any lesson that looks at creating video cannot ignore the power perspective and camera angles have on altering the ‘reality’ the audience sees, for example. It’s also worth looking at how social media can be used to discover the less-than-flattering details about us, even if a distortion of information is necessary to achieve that goal. Students need to be mindful of what they post, and aware of how to protect themselves.

Our own classroom practices need to be microcosms of the world we want to create. Our schools need to be the communities, the ecosystems, the societies which will form the foundation for our futures. If students are given opportunities to use their voices to make positive changes in their microcosms and are then given the chance to see the impact of those changes in ‘real world’ applications, think about the impact this will have on their behaviour in the future.

All of this is exciting. Think of the opportunities we have to move beyond our classrooms, and beyond our campuses even. The world is wide open, and it’s up to us to teach our students how to look and what to look for. Furthermore, when we know the world is watching, it should have an impact on the type of content we produce.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, thanks for staying the course. I hope it wasn’t as bad as you might have anticipated. Next time I promise I’ll talk about a matter that is less taboo, like abolishing homework, for example.