Discovering the power of good questions
The past week was remarkably generative for me. I was participating in the MOOC-MOOC, and also at the same time participating in an online course about teaching and learning. The two learning environments were at opposite ends of the continuum – from the chaos that is a MOOC, to the order that is characteristic of a business college class.
I discovered that I had challenges with both ends of the continuum. The chaos of the MOOC proved to be too much for me at times, I struggled to engage in a meaningful way, and found myself restless and overwhelmed. The order of the business class has proved to be too much order for me at all times, and I found myself restless and frustrated.
The dynamic tension between the two has raised many questions for me to explore, and that’s exactly what learning is for me – exploring questions, on my own, and with others. One of the big leaps in learning for me was to expose what was going on for me affectively in the MOOC – because it was about my sense of failure and frustration. That marked the very first time I tolerated the sense of vulnerability that I experience in posting “to the world” those unformed, swirling thoughts and feelings that actually characterize active learning, and asking for help. On the other hand, I saw that wouldn’t be the norm for the business class – and that’s too bad. Confusion, frustration and ambivalence together make the perfect storm for a teachable moment.
The other challenge to a stance that I was unaware of was my identity as an expert. I studied learning theory for 5 years – doesn’t that make me an expert learner? Of course not. Like every other human, the best place to start learning is from a position of not knowing – and to tolerate that feeling is particularly uncomfortable for people who have spent a long time in academia, focusing on knowing a lot about a particular discipline. I’ve re-framed my understanding of the role of the expert in teaching – to ask good questions, to model the discipline and rigor of not asserting without engaging deeply with a discussion, to help students develop a shared language in common about topics and issues (and align that in some way with the language of the discipline), and most importantly, to model how an “expert” goes about not knowing, exploring the question using resources in a critical way – in other words, how to be a learner with other learners.