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Supporting wonderful ideas

September 10, 2012

Eleanor Duckworth’s thesis in her essay The Having of Wonderful Ideas is that teachers should support students coming up with their own questions and deciding for themselves how to answer them. So how do teachers support their students having wonderful ideas?

Duckworth offers three main suggestions for instructors hoping to encourage wonderful ideas:

  1. Provide your students with interesting, real life equipment and contexts.
  2. Relinquish some of your control over the curriculum to your students.
  3. Let your students know when they have a wonderful idea.

The first suggestion requires moving away from the contrived scenarios so common in school settings. Rather than sterile, artificial contexts in which great effort is taken to lay out a single question for students, give students messy, real-world contexts that invite multiple possible questions. This is similar to Dan Meyer’s popular What can you do with this? series of problems in which the first step is to get the students to ask the question themselves. Duckworth is quick to point out that it is still useful for teachers to have some pre-planned questions to get the ball going. However, the goal of these questions, or at least some of these questions, should be to spark other questions. A wonderful idea starts with the student asking her own question. That won’t happen if the context is too dull or if all the questions have already been decided on and laid out for the student.

The second suggestion is probably the most difficult in my mind. In order for students to come up with their own questions they need to feel the freedom to ask their own questions and to know that at least some of time when they ask their own question they will be given the time and support to pursue an answer. This requires the teacher to relinquish some control and to be comfortable going ‘off script’. The curriculum in the class I’m teaching right now is very highly structured and guided. I need to think about what is absolutely essential in each activity, and what’s icing on the cake. Ideally I can identify some things in each activity that every single student should engage in and some things that a student could skip if she has her own idea to pursue. The real trick will be making sure a student who misses part of the written curriculum because she follows her own idea does not get penalized on homework or on a quiz.

The final suggestion is one I struggle with due to my personality. I am fairly relaxed and casual in my interactions with people. I don’t put on a show or a public persona when I’m in the classroom. Because of this, I sometimes do not communicate to students the awesomeness of their questions and ideas. The past few semester I’ve tried to become increasingly aware of this and tried to make my support and the pleasure I derive from student questions and comments more visible. I suppose I don’t want to act out of character in my response to a question or idea – that will seem facetious or disingenuous. Already this semester I’ve found myself occasionally coming back to a group a minute after I leave the table to say “By the way, that was a really great question…” I’m also trying to be explicit about why I think it is a great question (it connects to experiences you’ve had outside of class, you’re recognizing that we don’t have the tools to answer this question yet, etc.)

I gave my LAs a copy of Duckworth’s essay to read before our first meeting. Today we talked about some of the ideas in this post and also what they thought of the article in general. They found the second half of the article easier to read and more interesting than the first half. I can see how the first half could be confusing if you don’t know anything about Piaget. One of the LAs said she felt like the article ‘beat around the bush’ a lot rather than coming straight out and saying her idea explicitly. I said that I have felt that way about various education articles I’ve read. I should have delved into this deeper and tried to see if collectively we could propose any reasons for being less direct in an article such as this but I wasn’t thinking quick enough in the moment.

I’m sending the LAs an article on group discussions to read for next week. In this case I told them ahead of time why I think the article will be interesting and relevant to us. I’m curious what influence this will have on their reading and their comments next week. (Last week I did not give them any specific reasons for why I wanted them to read The Having of Wonderful Ideas.)

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