Re-awakening the learning giant within
Willy A Renandya
Children are inquisitive by nature. They ask all sorts of questions. They ask genuine questions to satisfy their innate curiosity about the world around them.
Some of the questions they ask are just out of the world, i.e., questions that adults around them don’t seem to know the answers.
- Why do the birds sing in the morning?
- What happens if the sun stops shining for a week?
- Why do people cry when they are happy?
- Why do people grow old?
However, once they start school, they seem to stop asking these innocent, thought-provoking questions.
They soon learn that in school they are not supposed to ask questions that have no single correct answers. Indeed, they also learn fairly quickly that it is the teacher’s job to ask questions, and their job to respond to these questions.
Since teachers often ask simple display or referential questions, children too begin to ask similar types of questions, i.e.,questions that require simple right/wrong answers. They have to go by the rule of the game and do the best they can to always give the right answer.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong about asking simple referential questions (also known as lower level thinking questions), but experts warn that if we truly believe in the kind of learning that is deep and lasting, we need to stop asking non-essential questions and start asking essential questions.
Essential questions, according to Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, are those that trigger cognitive dissonance and spark students’ curiosity to engage in knowledge-seeking behaviours. They promote greater cognitive and emotional engagement, resulting in optimal learning.
Essential questions are typically open-ended, highly thought-provoking, cognitively and emotionally engaging, lead to more questions than answers and keep the learning giant within each student fully awaken.
In other words, essential questions drive deeper kinds of learning, enabling students to explore the questions from various angles and perspectives until they reach some sort of cognitive equilibrium, a state of mind in which new knowledge is nicely assimilated and placed into an existing knowledge frame.
When teachers ask essential questions, students too will soon do the same and begin asking non-trivial questions, the kinds that awaken their natural propensity and curiosity to explore real world issues that require complex problem-solving skills.
Essential questions in ELT
In ELT we often work with experienced teachers in our professional development courses. In these courses, we too need to engage these teachers with essential questions. For example, we should perhaps reduce the number of non-essential questions such as the following:
- Name three language teaching methods that are still widely used in the world today
- What is native-speakerism?
- What is the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar?
Instead, we should focus more on asking essential questions, the kinds of timeless questions that continue to be important and relevant 40 or 50 years from now.
- How much cross-cultural understanding is needed to become a competent user of English as an international language?
- How can we acquire a new language without losing our ethnic and cultural identity?
- In EFL contexts, why is the success rate of acquiring a working proficiency of the language so low?
- Is personality more important than pedagogy in ELT?
- How can our teaching be more inclusive so that students with diverse first language, cultural and ethnic backgrounds can thrive in our classroom?
When these questions are posed in a relaxing and non-threatening manner, there is a good chance that our in-service teachers will be more willing to find answers to these questions, not because they have to but because they are genuinely interested in finding the answers in order to satisfy their curiosity.