To Question, First Listen

Several teachers asked me: “How do you get students to question, or ask questions?” I often say that, to start any unit or start the school year, find out what questions students have about the subject. What do they want or feel a need to know? But, students don’t always know or won’t say. Their questions are not always clear to them. The same for most of us. So, what then?


What do you do when you’re unsure about what you feel or think, or you don’t know what’s bothering or driving you? In other words, how do you hear what you’re saying to yourself?  Or, how do you improve your ability to listen, not just hear; to see, not just look? That’s a big question, bigger than I can answer.


Some people think a question is a sign of ignorance. Actually, it’s a sign of strength. A question is halfway to an answer. You need to recognize that you don’t know in order to come to knowing or to changing a viewpoint. So, teach and learn how to live with not-knowing and to live with questions.


One important element of teaching questioning in school is creating an environment or school culture that honors questioning and honors student voices, both in and out of the classroom. For example, a democratic school honors student voices and gives students a sense that their viewpoints are important. If they think their views are important, they will be more motivated to listen to themselves. If the school does not give students a sincere voice, students have more of a struggle to recognize value in their own mind and heart.


But what if you don’t have or can’t create a democratic school? Or even if you do, it’s not enough. The teacher in a classroom can model asking and listening– and questioning. Teachers should make their thinking visible, so the student can do the same. When teachers enter the classroom as if they are guides to learning, not know-it-alls; if teachers admit they lack knowledge and have questions, students feel more inclined to do the same.


Teach model questions. For example, questions to ask when you’re discussing a topic or reading a text. Questions to ask to test the speaker and ones to ask to test your own understanding. My favorites are ‘what,’ and ‘why’ and then how. “What exactly was said? What was the context? What was meant?” And: “Why was it said? What reasons would/did the person give for saying it? What is the proof?” Then: “How did they or would you apply this?”


What you are after is interoception, a relatively new word that means “perceiving within,” or perceiving one’s internal state. Humans have evolved brain systems devoted to this skill. Interoception is crucial for thinking clearly and acting with awareness. Mindfulness or learning how to be aware moment-by-moment of thoughts, feeling, and sensations is one way to train interoception.


Another way is to pick up a pen and write down on a piece of paper exactly what you hear, now, in your mind, without editing. Write even your wonder about what you’re writing. And then read Writing Your Mind Alive, by Linda Trichter-Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It describes a practice of revelation and understanding called proprioceptive writing.  The practice helped me find joy in writing, after I had lost it, and deepen understanding and self-trust.


Improvisational theatre games can be adapted to the classroom. They’re fun, and also teach you how to listen not only for your inner speech but for that of others. I’ll describe a few exercises I have used frequently in a classroom:

Show the class a photograph of a few people interacting in public. Ask students to study the photo and then write, “who-what-why;” who the people are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Tell them to simply listen to their intuition and let their imaginations work.

Give students one word, one that easily evokes an archetype, such as ‘no’ or ‘wonder’ and ask them: say the word to yourself a few times. Then describe an imagined person who this word personifies. To take this to the next step, have students create three people, from three contrasting words, like ‘yes-no-maybe.’ Put these three in a situation and imagine what will happen.

A more physical exercise might be mirroring. Pair up students. Have the people face each other, hands up, palms toward the partner. You can begin by having one person act as the leader, and then switch back and forth until there’s no clear leader.  When one moves, the other mirrors the movement. Make the movements fairly easy, at first. Do not lose eye contact or break the plane of the mirror.


Mirroring is a good way to introduce empathy training. There are many meditation practices to develop empathy and compassion. According to Paul Ekman, who has studied emotion extensively, empathy can take different forms. It begins with recognizing or reading what someone is feeling or thinking. It can then progress to “feeling with” another. Add caring and the willingness to act for another’s welfare and you have compassionate empathy. Add putting yourself at risk and you have altruism. Empathy is not “self-sacrifice” in the sense of not valuing your life. Instead, valuing (and clearly perceiving) the messages of your own mind and heart allows you to value the mind and heart of others, and vice versa.


To question, first listen. To listen, first care. To care—hopefully needs no further reason.

Energizing Meaning

We usually act as if the meaning of a word were inherent to its sounds and shapes. But I bet you’ve had the experience where you looked at a word and suddenly it had no meaning. Not only did it lose semantic meaning but you couldn’t even sound it out. It became merely random marks on a page. Experiment with this; it can teach useful lessons. The easiest way to do this, actually, is to start with the sound instead of the written symbol. Say a word over and over until sound and meaning decouple. You become mute.


All language depends on complex layers of associations. A word means something only as long as you can give it meaning. But it’s not only yours to give. Students sometimes argue in class that a word can mean anything you want it to. Try it out. It doesn’t work very well, not if you want to talk with someone else. If a word meant anything you wanted it to, then how could anyone understand you? Your meaning would be different than anyone else’s. You would isolate yourself; your words would be merely mutterings in the wind. Ask yourself and your students: Where do meanings come from? When you speak, it’s not only you speaking. It’s a whole culture. It’s a time and place in history speaking.


But this connection takes energy. You can lose it. When you’re tired or angry, how hard is it to read or write? Word meanings disappear on you. Or imagine trying to write a poem or essay when you’re worried about something else. How much meaning you derive when you read a book varies greatly with your focus, quality of attention and emotional state. This is true not only with reading a language but even more with reading math symbols or scientific formulas.


This has great import to all of us, but especially to teachers. It provides a great subject for students to investigate and study. It reminds us that education often begins with uncovering what was hidden, assumed, right in front of us, and then constructing new understandings. And it reminds us that understanding and learning takes energy. So any work assigned in school must have a well motivated and clear learning goal. Even tests must be thought of in terms of what the act of taking the test teaches students.


But if meaning requires energy, what sort of effort should students be encouraged or taught to expend? To many people, work itself is good, hard work is even better. Hard work supposedly teaches persistence, how to face adversity, develop “grit.” But unjustified work imposed on people is just unjustified, and being told to do it in a school mainly teaches how useless schools can be. Work imposed only from the top is completed mostly out of fear, or out of a desire to please an authority figure. The fear might be of a bad grade or of looking bad; the work itself is not compelling. Fear can motivate, but it also creates resistance, stress. Do we want to associate learning with fear or with pleasing authority-figures?


However, work which emerges from and elucidates a student’s own life concerns, crises, joys and questions is barely work at all. It is not imposed top down but emerges from one’s life or from one’s own assessment of what is important. The effort to complete it is almost effortless.


In psychology class, when we teach about stress, we talk about the “3Cs” of commitment, control and challenge. These 3Cs develop hardiness, the ability to take on demanding work, intellectual or otherwise. Applying this to a school situation, the more a student feels committed to or interested in a topic or assignment, is given a choice or some control, and feels the task is a useful challenge or adventure, the less resistance or harmful stress they will experience, and the more they will learn. The 3Cs are a good guide to fostering effortless effort and clear learning. It also makes school more enjoyable and engaging.

The Interview


Sasha Lilley, producer and interviewer of Pacifica Radio’s Against The Grain, interviewed me a few weeks ago. The interview was about alternative education or student centered learning, the attacks on public schools, how to teach to meet the needs of a diverse population, and how to teach critical thinking using mindfulness. It was aired on the radio last week. Here is a link to it.


Mon 6.16.14 | The Radical Philosophy of Alternative Public Education | Against the Grain: A Program about Politics, Society and Ideas


In the interview, I talked about using questions to engage students and develop their critical intellect. As an illustration, I used the historical question: Why was Socrates executed by his city-state, Athens? In the interview, I did not give adequate background to the question.


Socrates, who was one of the most influential philosophers in history, certainly Western history, was probably both a hero and a pain in the butt. His methods clearly irritated many of his contemporaries. He was charged with impiety and with corrupting minors, by encouraging his students to question their assumptions and beliefs. He was the teacher of several notable people, including Plato, who taught Aristotle, who taught Alexander The Great. He was executed in 399 BCE, just five years after Athens had lost the Peloponnesian Wars, had lost their once glorious empire and seen their democracy destroyed and rebuilt. The wars had spanned over 30 years. When given the opportunity to escape a death sentence but be exiled from his home, he declined. So, why was Socrates executed?


I was also unclear in explaining why test scores are poor vehicles for diagnosing what students have learned. When tests compare student achievement, as by using a curve or by ranking how the student stood in relation to other students, they do not say what a student actually knows. If everyone in a group does poorly, scoring 90% does not mean you did well. If everyone in the group is a high achieving student, scoring only 10% might be vey good.


And there are so many other reasons not to use standardized tests to assess student, teacher, or school achievement. So, why are the tests still pushed?


Also, this week LACS received good news. The radio interviewer asked me if an alternative school, which de-emphasized tests, grades and competition, could prepare students for the tests and other challenges of the world. I said yes. To support my assertion, the SAT scores for the year were announced this week. LACS outscored all the other schools in upstate New York. (Despite this, I still argue that standardized tests infringe on learning more than they assess it.)


I hope you enjoy the interview. Any questions or comments?



*The mural is by LACS students. The blue ox is the Blue ACS, symbol of the school.