A man in France is slowly but surely teaching me about true scholarship. I say slowly because I am slow to let go of old habits. I say surely because I feel the change happening.
I was brought up in a very ordinary schooling system. There was always information someone wanted me to know. I memorized it and was tested to be sure I knew it. If the questions I asked were not easily answered, there was some promise of seeking the answer at a later date. I got used to that routine, and without consciously thinking about it, changed my question asking to the sorts for which the teacher had an answer. Some teachers inspired me to dig deeper than others, but no one really taught me to be a scholar.
For the last two years, I have been taking spellinars through the Real Spelling site. The creator of these spellinars is Michel Rameau. With his knowledge and guidance I am seeing and understanding what no one has ever shown me about the language I speak and write. I’m learning its history and the interesting facts about why words are spelled the way they are. And Michel is also teaching me to be a scholar.
The biggest difference, as I am now embracing it, is at the very heart of learning. No one ever said it out loud, but I recognize so clearly that schools are answer driven. The teachers ask questions for which there is usually one right answer. The students are graded on how well they answer all of the teacher’s questions. We teach students to analyze questions and we help our students learn how to answer them. But the big, really big thing we are missing, is that the questions we ask are our own preplanned questions. They are not questions that rise up out of a child’s curiosity upon examining information. They are not initiated by the child and guided through investigation with the teacher. The child learns facts and information in this way, but not any true scholarship behaviors. For true scholarship is question driven. It is thought provoking and allows time for processing and dreaming and experimenting. It most certainly does not come in a one-size-fits-all prepackaged kit, complete with teaching manual!
But of course, there’s the rub. Now that I have been able to experience real scholarship, and understand how it can personally ignite learning, I have to make it work in the confines of an answer driven school setting and the current craze to constantly fire test questions at students and collect and measure them based on their answers. What a challenge!
But after twenty years of teaching, I get it. The question IS more important than the answer. The question will be the thing that guides our curiosity and motivates us to search for evidence to support or disprove the basis of the question. The answer is temporary and in some cases even momentary. It all depends on how much time we spend on collecting data. When new information comes along, the answer can change.
So how does my new scholarly way of thinking change the way I talk with my students? Instead of saying, ” The answer is …”, or “That is correct,” I say something like, “At this point, and looking at the evidence we have collected, my current understanding is that …….”. When I phrase it in this way, it leaves the original question open to further debate, further analysis, further contemplation. The goal is no longer for the student to have the correct answer. The goal is for the student to provide a response that is based on evidence he/she has compiled. As a teacher, I don’t necessarily grade based on what I think the answer is. I look to see how well the student has proven or disproven their position with evidence he/she has collected. It doesn’t matter which subject I’m teaching, and it doesn’t matter what age the students are. My fifth graders recently took a lesson on the <igh> trigraph to a second grade classroom. It was all about collecting evidence. They sorted words into two groups: those that had a consonant in front of the <igh> trigraph, and those that had an <a> or <e> in front of the <igh> trigraph. After reading the words in the two groups, the students were able to say, “Based on the evidence we have gathered, if the word has a consonant in front of the <igh>, the <igh> represents /i/ (long i). If the word has an <a> or <e> in front of the <igh>, the <igh> represents /a/ (long a).”