Powerful Questions Can Kill Zombies

Everybody is creative. It’s an impulse all humans have. It separates us from the beasts. Creativity is all around us: in houses, road systems, a song, your family, your city, the store where you shop, these words you sit reading happily. All creations. Each one a question answered! If we humans didn’t follow our impulse to change things, to make life better, to create we’d still be running around naked, living in caves. Caves are drafty.

One year my class was getting close to our year-end exams. I was behind. I’m always behind. We were running out of time. I found myself hustling my students towards answers, filling them up with data, as if we were in a hotdog-eating contest trying to stuff the most food down our throats. As I stood there spitting information at my students, my classroom was very well behaved, orderly, I was in charge, the room was quiet, and we were making good time. But the air was being squeezed out of my room, creativity was dying, eyelids were drooping, and we were quickly getting nowhere. In one high-speed class, I remember stopping and actually telling a student that I didn’t have time for any questions. Sorry.

What happens when a student asks a question?

1) First, it shows that they’re listening. They’re awake. That’s a good start.

2) It means they give a damn. They actually care about the answer.

3) Something they have been reading, seeing, hearing, or thinking about has caused them to ponder, to put things together, to care, to take a risk, to ask, to wonder, to create a question. And in the act of questioning they have move from being passive to being active.

4) The questioner becomes an empowered, independent, learning-generator.

5) Student questions are always more valuable than teacher questions. Student questions are multipliers. Their authenticity makes other students want to answer them, which usually leads to another student question, to another, and another, into a virtuous cycle of questions.

6) Questions often lead to answers, but even when they don’t, the search for knowledge, the learning, the journey is even more important than the destination.

7) There should always be a # 7.

8) Asking a question is a bold act of originality and creativity. It should be practiced.

So we were speeding through all the answers, detouring past questions like they were potholes. That evening I got a phone call. A friend who worked for the UN was home from his work in war torn Bosnia. Could he come and speak to my class? The test was only a week away so we didn’t have any time for a guest presentation. Bosnian history wasn’t going to be on the test, for goodness sake! Then again, my friend Ray was a big deal (how often does someone from the UN speak to a high school class?) he was leaving the next day, and I had told him last year, when the test was still months off, that if he was ever in town I’d love for him to stop in and share his work with my class. But the test!!!! It’s a hard test! Okay, I told Ray, just talk for half an hour to one class. That’s all I can give you.

 When Ray walked to the front of my sleepy classroom, the students looked surprised. They sat up in their desks. Listened. Ray began to tell the story of a family, half Muslim, half Orthodox Christian that was torn apart by the war. In the inky morning light, at exactly the appointed time, this divided family’s father stole away from his sleeping wife and children without a kiss, without saying goodbye. As soon as he had driven safely across town, his former neighborhood came under assault by his religious brethren. My students shook their heads. As my friend shared his story with my students a fog began to lift. A few eyes welled with tears. Ray looked over at me, raised his eyebrows, and tapped his watch. Was it time to stop? A student lifted their hands in the air to ask a question. I shook my head. Keep going. As Ray answered the first question three other hands shot up. Ray looked back over at me. I smiled and waved for him to keep talking. He didn’t have time to answer all of their questions, but it hardly mattered, their questions would lead my students forward, curious, engaged, searching. When the class ended everyone was wide-awake. Scores of students crowded around my friend to ask more questions about the history of Bosnia, how they could get involved with his work, how one goes about doing international relief work, what language they speak in Bosnia, what America was doing to help, what Bosnian schools were like, what life was like for Bosnian teens.

I wrote lots of notes so my students could be late to their next classes. Then the next day in class some students had done some research on their own, and my class had even more questions for me. I wondered how I could connect their curiosity and Ray’s story to the test. How I could try to weave this eruption of curiosity into my planned lessons. The more I thought about it the more I realized that I didn’t really need to. After all, we aren’t really teaching information any more – anybody can get that with a cell phone, we’re teaching skills, and one of the most important skills we can teach is asking and pursuing questions. I answered their questions as well as I could. I farmed out the questions I couldn’t answer to teams for homework. Then I asked questions of my own. I challenged them to do some reading that Ray had recommended. I assigned the beginning of a project. Students took different topics on Bosnia to help us all make sense of what had happened there.

At the end of the year my students took their test. The test had seemed pretty important to me a week before. Looking back now, I don’t have any clue how they did and I’m sure they don’t remember a thing that was on that test. But I do know that I was in Bosnia later that summer. That we brought seven Bosnian kids to our classroom on an exchange program over the following years. That my students produced exhilarating, creative, and informative projects and reports on Bosnia in the week following the test. One of my students even majored in Balkan studies in college where she learned the Bosnian language and then interned in Sarajevo the next summer. Another student was in Bosnia a few years later. The Bosnian soccer team, created out of the ashes of the Balkan war, played proudly at the World Cup this year. And I know that all those students who journeyed with us through those questions cheered!

After elementary school, the markers and scissors are put away, questions are discouraged, and cooperation is renamed cheating (if it wasn’t for collaboration we’d have no buildings, art, science, children!). For most students, schools are caves, incubators of stasis, where they have been steered away from any original thoughts or hard questions, and had their natural creative impulses buried.

On the first day of kindergarten, classrooms across the land fill with excited, energetic, creative children. By the time they graduate, students slouch away from their high schools like zombies with their creative instincts nearly drowned. That sparkling kindergartener still resides within our seniors. And when we reignite that spark, allowing their creative, original questions to flow, our students become powerful, their learning, limitless.