If Johnny’s teacher told you at parent-teacher conferences that he was doing great because he knew none of the answers but all of the questions, you more than likely would fall off your chair.
Questions rather than answers? Seriously?
Answers are the foundation of good grades, high test scores, a prestigious college. They make us right, measure what we know, add up to something.
Not according to Stuart Firestein, chairman of the Biological Sciences Department at Columbia University. He argues that “ignorance is far more important to discovery than knowledge. The purpose of knowing a lot of stuff isn’t to know a lot of stuff. It’s to be able to frame thoughtful, interesting questions.”
I should mention that Fire- stein’s “ignorance” has nothing to do with the general meaning we use in our everyday lives, a word we equate with stupidity, feeble-mindedness and regression.
Rather, his “ignorance” is the embracing of doubt from which insightful questions follow, the kinds of queries that lead to more questions and, on the way, to stunning and magnificent discoveries. In other words, what we don’t know is critical.
His target is primarily the scientific method, which he apparently turns on its ear in a course he teaches at Columbia, appropriately called “Ignorance.”
But Firestein also makes a connection to education in general, worrying that in our infatuation with testing, we’ve fallen head over heels for the recitation of facts at the expense of how to ask a good question.
So not only are the facts, which obviously serve a useful purpose, easy to test, but they are also easy to find — without a school or a teacher.
Hello? Google? Wikipedia? A favorite blog? Twitter? But unless questioning (and I would add problem-solving) is as important as knowledge, how will students learn to sift and filter and challenge and consider and think about what they find?
Internet rumors, for example, run rampant not only because of our exponential technology but also because of our failure to ask the next question or a pertinent one, something complex, deep and stirring such as “Prove it, pal. What’s the evidence?” And then be equipped to weigh it.
But I’m dreaming. Reality is still numbers — as we’ve seen recently with the latest round of report cards for Nebraska schools. While we have gold stars in spots among the scores the state compiled, we’re falling further behind according to the federal chaos known as No Child Left Behind, Washington’s attempt to add it all up.
We’ve put more schools on the list of underachievers, some of which by many other measures are knocking the socks off of academic performance. They have high graduation rates and produce scholars who go on to great success (and ask thoughtful questions).
Next year, No Child Left Behind, which Congress has failed to rewrite since its original guidelines expired in 2007, will require everyone to be reading, writing and arithmeticking at 100 percent proficiency, the Lake Wobegon Effect on steroids.
And it’s a goal completely inane unless we’re content to brand every school in the state as “failing.” Which brings me back to questions and answers.
Indulge me an extrapolation from Firestein’s premise: When we laser our focus on answers only and set unrealistic and increasingly difficult standards, the inevitable result will be where we’re headed next year.
I worry, too, that in our penchant to reach “adequate yearly progress” or some such marker, we hamstring teachers and run the real risk of testing the natural curiosity and love of learning out of too many kids.
So when I weigh the ideas of Firestein with the ocean of numbers and acronyms with which we’re awash while assessing the recent report cards, I wonder to what end we continue on this educational path.
In lamenting our headlong rush into facts, the testing of knowledge and the process used to evaluate how we’re doing, Firestein, via a quote from W.B. Yeats, reminds us that learning is far more than a regurgitation of what we know: “Education is not filling buckets; it is lighting fires.”
Time to start gathering some wood and asking some tough questions.