Julie A. Cunningham

Academic Advisor

Don't Have the Answer


Creative Commons License photo credit: extended.epiphany

I’ve been excited to visit so many schools in the past few months while searching for a new position. The diversity in education is both amazing and astounding. In one school, there is not a desk in sight, students wear slippers in class, and it’s hard to find the teacher in the room because they are on the floor engaged with kids.  In another, the desks are in rows facing the front, students achieve amazing results in writing- years beyond a traditional school, and the teacher has amazing things to share while students listen attentively. Different, but both valuable. It’s helping me temper some of my more ‘radical’ tendencies to see excellence and value in educational approaches I’m not generally a fan of. ((Take that…. I’m ending a sentence with ‘of’…. my high school AP English teacher would have kittens…))

My favorite moment during the student interaction and observation portion of these interviews was working with a small group of 5th graders on a Science lab. Students were testing for indicators using a liquid substance and a group of powders (cornstarch, baking powder, plaster of paris, salt, etc.). In this particular exercise, we were using iodine. Now iodine is a substance that few 10 year olds have played with- unless they’ve been around farm animals, surgery, or birth. They first had to learn what it looked like outside of the opaque squeeze bottle. As they took turns adding drops to the powders, they became really engaged with the experiment. So did I. Our results were not conclusive, which led to a rousing debate.  They talked. I let them. They were loud. I just asked that they take turns so we could hear what they had to say. The coolest part- besides how engaged the students were- was that I DIDN’T HAVE THE ANSWER.

Usually, as teachers, we have the answer.  Students know we have the answer.  They want to give us the right answer. Shortcuts and cheating abound, since it’s not about learning- it’ about getting it right. It was exciting to be a learner alongside these 5th graders- exploring, comparing, questioning, evaluating, discussing. Since I didn’t have the answer, my role was to ask questions. Things like, “How does that compare with your last experiment with vinegar?”, “What do you think it would look like if we just used water?” (Plaster of paris was a huge issue- it looks like it reacts, but it’s really just acting like plaster of paris…. solidifying when liquid is added.) “I don’t have the answer- what do you think?” “Is it reacting if it stays the same color?” “Can a form change alone be a reaction?” “I don’t know- what do you think?”

It was a really eye-opening discussion for me. I loved every minute of it. Except for the part about not knowing. Not knowing the answer. Not knowing what the observers were looking for in me. Not knowing whether it was ok with that lead teacher to go with the process rather than the outcome. I wonder if that’s how our students feel- they love the learning, but not the ‘not knowing the right answer’ part.

The learning outcomes?

Students learned that:

  1. Adults don’t have all the answers.
  2. Experiments don’t always go according to plan.
  3. Thinking is fun. And messy.

I learned that:

  1. Students don’t always need to find the right answer.
  2. Experiments don’t always go according to plan.
  3. Learning is fun. And messy.

The results? (In case you’re curious about the ‘right’ answer…)

Iodine is an indicator for starch.  After some research, I think the salt used (which also turned black) must have had some kind of starch in it as an anti-caking agent. Either that or it was contaminated somehow by the cornstarch.

My take away?  I want to learn to be a great inquirer, and to ask meaningful, rich questions of children that address much more than their knowledge.

Do you have any great resources to share on inquiry and asking questions? Help me learn how to do that better.

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