Sunday, 7 February 2016

Questions are a good place to start

I’ve spent my day wading through three sets of books: wonderful, glorious, messy and brilliant exercise books. Against this backdrop, I’ve also distracted myself by engaging in fervent online chats spanning everything from how to get Tesco to pay for your highlighters, Derrida and deconstruction theory, and how to tackle Paper 2 of the new AQA GCSE English Language spec.

One of these casual exchanges sparked a blog post and, now I’ve finally popped away my purple pen (and once more donned my usual elephantine HoF hide), I’ve got about ten minutes to respond before my bath is full and I go and finish another chapter of ‘Batavia’ before bed.

So, here's my attempt to explain exactly what I *did* mean when I asserted:
1) “Asking questions is the starting point for all learning.”
2)  “If only experts asked questions teachers may as well give up now”

Which means it’s time for some Emily Bronte.

“Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree”

“The writer uses nature to communicate ideas of sadness. It says, “Fall, leaves, fall”. This suggests the poet as [sic] described someone who is having a bad time, and he [sic] just wants all his problems to drop and go away, just like when leaves drop of [sic] a tree. We want them to blow away so we can carry on moving forward.”  -  Student response to an unseen poem

The student who wrote this response, for a variety of reasons, doesn’t have much content knowledge that may have helped her to unpick meanings, the writer’s use of language etc. The nature of the unseen response also doesn’t allow this understanding to be scaffolded by the teacher in a format that can be learnt and retained.

And yet she’s understood that there is a meaning here beyond the literal, unlocking ideas about tone and imagery. So, how did she do it? She asked questions. She sought meaning through her own enquiry.

She isn’t an expert and yet she isn’t ignorant. Her own questions unlocked understanding and signalled the knowledge to be gained.

Which isn’t the same as saying that all questions are created equal; I absolutely agree that the more you know the more interesting your questions are likely to be. If this student knew something about Bronte’s life, perhaps, or had the subject terminology to unpick how meanings were created she clearly could’ve created a more nuanced response.

So, OK, I may have fallen into the hyperbolic trap of the tweet when I said questions are the starting point for ‘all’ learning. I’m sure there are many contexts when a secure base of knowledge is absolutely necessary for learning - if not most - and that my example of the unseen poem could be seen as somewhat ‘niche’. And, yes, I apologise to David for the needless prefix of “Rubbish” before statement 2. But, it is surely the most human of endeavours to ask. To seek. To pursue knowledge throughly asking. 

If we only allow those with a secure knowledge base to ask we are surely cutting off the source of inspiration and excitement that makes this job so wonderful and exciting. So, well, fun.

And that’s what I meant by my two assertions.
Let’s encourage our students so they have the confidence to ask. Let’s start by inspiring our students so they want to ask.

Content knowledge can provide answers, but at its end point we just find more questions. Let’s ensure when we get there that our students are able to create those questions for themselves and aren’t simply holding out their spoons waiting for non-existent answers.


  1. Thanks for the clarification. The student's response above exemplifies precisely why I despair at the primacy of the question. It appears - and obviously it's a short extract removed from context, so accept I could be wrong - to have been written by a students who has learned some generic process of asking questions but without having acquired any useful knowledge about poetry. It's just not true to say "The nature of the unseen response ...doesn’t allow this understanding to be scaffolded by the teacher in a format that can be learnt and retained". It absolutely does. How - by explicitly teaching how poetry works; by explaining what a poet might know about linguistic and structural features and by reading lots and lots of poetry. Then when students know enough to understand what you're doing you can model the thinking which goes into high quality critical response. When they have seen how these processes work well-designed scaffolding helps them to internalise this knowledge. Them with lots of deliberate, conscious practice of applying what they know to many different unseen poems they start to become expert. Writing about an unseen poem then really does become about questioning and interrogating the text but this expertise - which is very often tacit to an English teacher who will have passed through this threshold years previously and will therefore likely be suffering from 'the curse of knowledge' - doesn't happen without instruction and hardwork.

  2. Hi David,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I don't agree that this student has 'no useful knowledge of poetry'. It's evident she understands the way metaphor works, even without the subject terminology to express it. I certainly don't *despair* with this as a starting point. And, as I said, there are significant and specific reasons this student is lacking the wider subject knowledge we would have hoped her to attain at this point on her schooling which would've enabled a more critical response.

    You're right to flag up I'm wrong to say I don't scaffold students' understanding of an unseen poem. Of course I do, by teaching the skills required and, yes, I do expect this teaching to be learnt and retained. What I meant was I can't scaffold their understanding of the specific content and methods used in a specific poem. Of course I teach 'how poetry works, linguistic and structural features' and there is 'deliberate conscious practice'.

    I'm afraid you're incorrectly inferring I was taught to fear 'the curse of knowledge'. This simply not what I believe. What I do believe is that students should be given the confidence to ask, the knowledge to enable them to formulate better questions, and, if necessary, the skills to find their own answers.

    This topic wasn't the initial subject of the Twitter conversation that inspired your blog post and, I must admit, it wasn't a subject I had planned to blog about. Thanks for helping me clarify my thoughts somewhat. Time to shake hands and move on. Best wishes.