Grandma, why can’t I ask why?

Yes, true story. I used to be one of those kids that was always asking why…apparently so much, that grandma told me to stop asking her “why” about everything. To which I reply: “grandma, why can’t I ask why“. Well at least my mom told me that this happened, and I totally believe her. I do remember, however, a total stranger giving me a popsicle during a soccer game, with the condition that I would stop asking so many questions to my uncle about the game…and yes, I asked my uncle why this stranger was giving me a popsicle…ok maybe the last part of the story did not happen, but it is not the point, what matters is that from the beginning the curiosity has been always there. And even though in multiple times the adults tried to crush it down, I am still asking: why?

Questioning, as Thomas and Brown pointed out in their book1, is essential to the creation of knowledge. Asking leads to new discoveries, it allows to those with curious minds to embrace themselves in new adventures, in a new journey, that at the end will likely benefit the entire society. But, if asking is so important, then why so many times are questions being ignored in classes? Why are some students afraid of asking? Why class duration often prohibits for longer discussions? Or is it how classes are designed that really prohibits the discussion? The latter would probably happen in what Thomas and Brown discussed as the culture of teaching, where the role of the instructor is to pass “valuable” information to the students.

Old style lectures (i.e. instructor just passing information), like Robert Talbert suggests in “Four things lecture is good for “, need to be combined with dynamic experiences to move into a culture of learning. Although there are fundamental theorems that stay the same through time, the most relevant information is constantly changing. Therefore, an evolving environment, where discussions are shaped by all participating members is needed; where creativity, imagination, curiosity, invention, and team work are fully integrated, without fixed teaching structures or boundaries hurting the networked learning. This means that we need to ask another important question: how do we get there? My best guess is through experiments, taking chances, making changes, and hope for the best outcome … and if anything, something would have still been learned along the way.

Thomas’s experimental approach with his class must have been an incredible journey, especially for Star Wars fans. In case you have no clue what I am talking about, just imagine going to a class where the professor gives you the opportunity to play computer games as part of the class meetings (actually, I really suggest you read it). Weird, fascinating, fun, right? Well if you don’t like gaming then probably not only weird to you, but also likely to appear as a waste of time. Probably, that is how the parents of the students saw it at the time. Being completely honest, if I was Thomas’s boss, I would have call that idea a recipe for disaster. A very risky approach, even if some sort of lecture and discussion were still included within the three-hour class duration. What would have been my reaction to such class approach, A RECIPE FOR DISASTER, tells me that before technology, internet, networked learning, community learning, etc., can fully develop, a cultural shift is required. A new mindset to approach the learning process as a journey, needs to be cultivated and harvested. Maybe then actions like my grandma’s (sorry grandma) and the popsicle stranger will not happen again, and instead we will all play the game, like when we were kids.

I do have to ask myself, wouldn’t I have done the same and give an annoying kid a popsicle to watch the game in peace? Yeah, adult me will do it. So let’s keep learning, let’s keep educating, let’s keep asking WHY? but not during a soccer game, there is a proper time and place for everything.

– Carlos F. Mantilla P.

1. “A New Culture of Learning – Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change” – Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown



Filed under GEDI F17

10 Responses to Grandma, why can’t I ask why?

  1. Bethany Wolters

    Yes, we have the change the culture in our classes around asking questions. I did two things in my classes to try and change this and encourage students to ask questions. First I made space for asking questions. I am co-teaching and usually get one 50-min class period per week to teach, not very much time. But I set aside 10 minutes at the beginning of each class for students to ask questions. Ten of my 50 minutes per week feels like a big commitment and very different from the way we ask questions now, as an afterthought in the last few second of class. Second, I set-up the expectation that students would come with questions. I told them on Monday that there would be a 10 min Q & A session, and reminded them on Wednesday. I told students to come with questions or I would have questions prepared to ask them. I emailed them and set-up a quiz question that week to ask them if there were any topics they wanted to review in class. Guess what! They came to class with questions on Friday! I had to cut it off after 10 minutes to move on to the next activity, but I was really impressed and pleased. They asked both logistical questions about assignments and questions they came up with as a result of thinking about the content. Now, this was the first week, so I don’t know what will happened this Friday, but I’m hopeful that I will slowly change the culture of asking questions in my class.

    • Carlos F Mantilla P

      Hi Bethany, thanks for your comment. I think starting a class with a question period could be a very good strategy to engage more students and “promote” the thinking process rather than just attending lecture…I am curious thought, in the remaining 40 minutes of the class you still got questions from the students while giving the lecture? and therefore the first 10 minutes are more directed to questions that develop out of class?

  2. zhanyu

    Very engaging post! Asking questions in class may seem like a given, but sometimes it’s harder to do than it looks. Nobody wants to appear “stupid,” and sometimes students may feel like they’re taking up “valuable” lecture time by asking perhaps a lengthy question. What’s even more difficult is when students are completely lost that they don’t know where to begin to ask questions. It’s so important to foster a supportive community, where students can feel comfortable enough to speak up. I often prefer classes where professors sacrifice “course material” because they spend more time listening to students and clarifying concepts. Those moments spent discussing may just be more valuable than plowing through the course in an attempt to cover more material.

    • Carlos F Mantilla P

      Agree on the last part, however sometimes the material needs to be cover one way or the other…so probably integrating the questioning within the lecture style carefully so that all the material can still be covered…after all need to keep a balance in everything

  3. Shiqiang

    Asking WHY, from the learner’s perspective, is definitely a great way for efficient learning. Meanwhile, we need teachers and instructors to show us the way or skills to find the correct answer, instead of handing over the answers directly. Just as the old saying reveals, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime”. Learning is an interactive process between learner and educator, and we need both sides to be more engaged in higher education.

  4. Jyotsana

    You and me both Carlos – We want to know “why” 🙂 Thank you for your post, you bring up some very good points about the way in which we think about education. Can’t wait for the Mindful Learning module and to see what you think of that!

  5. Sneha Upadhyaya

    Greatly enjoyed reading your post! I think for a limited lecture time, it might be difficult to answer all the “WHYs” that the students might have. However, by utilizing digital media such as online chat forums and blog posts, both teachers and students can better interact outside classroom as well!

    • Carlos F Mantilla P

      that sounds like an idea worth exploring, have a blog in the class for students/professor to interact on the “whys” and other questions not covered in class…might steal your idea for next semester

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