Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at the importance of asking open-ended questions in our teaching. It is from Chapter 7, Open Questions Invite Dialogue, in the book, On Teaching and Learning: Putting the Principles and Practices of Dialogue Education into Action, by, Jane Vella, who among other things is the founder of Global Learning Partners in Rleigh, North Carolina. She can be reached at: email@example.com. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741-[www.josseybass.com]. Copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Open Questions Invite Dialogue
The simple tactic of asking open questions in educational design can become a strategy. Open questions do invite dialogue. There is no more powerful tool to stimulate authentic, constructed knowing and vigorous learning. A learning task is an open question put to a small group with all the resources they need to respond.
Open questions elicit the power of context and life. The open question assumes respect for learners and for their experience and current knowledge. Open questions often begin with How: How would this theory work in my setting? How will I teach this skill to my colleagues? How will this help me respond to my problematic situation? How does this all relate to my life and context?
When an open question has been asked of a group, it is imperative that the teacher sit still, be quiet, and pay attention. There is a great temptation to respond ourselves to the question just posed. This can mean our stealing the learning opportunity from the learners. The quiet that occurs before dialogue around a meaningful open question is sacred and essential to their learning.
Most of us have spent a great deal of our lives as school-based learners responding to closed questions. In church school, the catechism did not even put the answer at the back of the book: it was right there! That "learning" involved question and response-repeat the question, give the printed response.
Whose learning were we learning? In those classrooms, all disciplines had the textbook with the pink cover (teacher's edition) with the answers to all the tests in the back. Little wonder we grew up as linear thinkers, knowing for certain that there was one answer and it was in the back of the (pink) book.
In some bleak pedagogical archive there must be a text describing a method of teaching that looks much like fishing. The teacher says: Today we will cover the political geography of Europe. What is the capital of the United Kingdom? And of France? Of Germany? Of Belgium?
At this moment, classes in university, community college, and technical schools are beginning with a set of fishing questions. This behavior is as far from dialogue education as is possible. These are not open questions, but closed questions with a sting of domination. I know; you do not know.
From Closed to Open Questions
London was indeed the capital of England and Paris of France-but how did that happen? Why London? Why Paris? What is the relation of one to the other? What would have been the effect of making a coastal town in France the capital city, or of making Belfast the capital of the UK? How does this dialogue relate to the Middle East and the issue of Jerusalem? Imagine the difference in the quality of dialogue and of learning with this kind of thinking: the opposite of linear thinking. Such open questions invite connected, circular, profound, open thinking. Dana Zohar (1997) suggests this is quantum thinking. She explains these differences through quantum physics in terms of three functions of the brain: the one-to-one leap of energy between neurons on a neural tract, which she calls serial thinking; the leap of energy in a pattern across a neural network, which she calls patterned or associative thinking; and the explosion of energy throughout the whole brain using a network of neural networks, which she names quantum thinking.
Here are some examples.
Serial thinking: What is the capital of Portugal? The capital of Portugal is Lisbon.
Patterned thinking: What do you notice about many of the capital cities of Europe? Many of the capitals of Europe are on waterways.
Quantum thinking: Political and economic realities are and have always been deeply entwined. Notice that all of the capitals of Europe are on waterways. How is the Internet, which we are using for this course, a global waterway? Where do you think the capital of the Internet lies?
Open questions are involved in patterned and quantum thinking.
Teaching as dialogue invites quantum thinking and quantum learning (Vella, 2002). It is the transformational learning that Mezirow (1991) defined. The quality of such learning may be one cogent answer to current problems in education at every level. The open question does not belittle facts and figures; it moves directly to examine them , to analyze the connections, and to consider the implications. Whatever you are teaching, a linear recital of facts and figures is hardly worth the effort. The definition of a learning task includes reference to open questions. A learning task is an open question put to a small group with all the resources they need to respond. The resources (facts and figures) can be incontrovertible data. However, this is not what you are teaching. Such data is available on the Internet with a flick of the finger: go to Google or to any search engine with the right question. Here are examples of data:
Over thirty thousand humans have been killed in the Iraq war.
China's population in 2007 is estimated to be 1,321,851,888.
Mozart composed twelve operas from 1767 to 1791.
The seven design steps of dialogue education are Who? Why? When? Where? What? What for? and How?
The content of your teaching is not mere data or information, but the meaning of that information in a particular context. Testing is often an examination of learner's retention of data. It often involves serial thinking. Evaluation in dialogue education is not testing: it is rather an examination and evaluation of behavioral indicators that show constructed, quantum knowing (see Part Four, Sure).
Here are two dialogue education designs showing quantum knowing that includes serial and patterned knowing.
Dialogue Education Lesson 1: The Fatalities of the Iraq War 2003-2007
Thousands of men, women, and children have died in this Iraq war (2003-2007).
What for? (achievement-based objectives):
By the end of this class, all will have
* Calculated the cost of the Iraq war in human lives; examined pictures of the dead.
* Identified contemporaries among them.
* Composed a short letter to the family of a contemporary killed in this war.
How? (learning tasks and materials):
* Examine these charts of up-to-date data at your table.
* Look at these sets of pictures of war dead: Iraqi and Coalition forces.
* Identify contemporaries: men and women your own age.
* Compose a short letter from your table group to that person's family.
Dialogue Education Lesson 2: China's Population Growth 2007
China's population in 2007 is estimated to be 1,321,900,000
What for? (achievement-based objectives):
By the end of this class all will have
* Identified on a map of china the areas of most rapid growth.
* Named strengths and problems in this growth pattern.
How? (learning tasks to be done in small groups):
* Examine this graph of China's population in 2007.
* Identify on the wall map of China areas of growth.
* Name strengths and dangers of this growth pattern for China's development.
Notice that the steps in this learning task are indeed open questions, and that they move across cognitive, affective, and psychomotor aspects of learning.
Implementation Challenge 7A: Face-to-Face
Consider a course you are now teaching or designing for a face-to-face situation. How do you see using your understanding about serial, patterned, and quantum learning? How can this knowledge enhance your design?
Implementation Challenge 7B: On-Line
Consider an on-line course you have designed or taught or are teaching, or one that you have taken. How would changing closed questions to open questions affect that design? Where in that course do you see serial, patterned, and quantum learning?