Questions for Curiosity Development

Curious kitten
Curiosity energizes the cat.

Questions are at the heart of education. The public in general tends to see public education in terms of teaching students to answer questions. That’s one reason standardized tests have so much public support.

However, when I say questions are at the heart of education, I’m not thinking of test questions.

Nor am I thinking of the questions teachers ask, those discussion questions that typically produce no discussion, no thought, and no learning. (I speak as a teacher who “led discussions.”)

The questions I’m thinking about are the  people  ask when they really want to know. Call them curiosity questions. They are questions that lead people to think, explore, and make connections. Curiosity questions are the marks of a learner.  Finding ways to develop the type of curiosity that produces learning is the job of educators.

The job has two parts. One part is getting people to ask questions. I do that in the context of teaching students to develop research paper topics. Teachers may need to give students a formula for generating questions and force them to use it until students find a use for one of their questions. Once some dumb thing the teacher makes them do actually proves useful, it ceases to be a dumb thing for students.

The second part of the educator’s job is getting learners  to ask useful questions.  That’s a far more difficult task.  It involves precise use of language, particularly if the question is to be presented in written format where the opportunities to clarify and add detail are limited.  However, that’s not all that is involved.

Asking a useful question requires the ability to look at the situation from the perspective of the person you are asking for the information.  In some situations, the questioner might be given aids that spell out what kinds of information to supply in order to get a timely and useful response.  In such cases, the questioner is expected to read the directions.  That implies, of course, that educators must teach students not only how to read directions but also  to read directions.  The how is part is much easier to teach and learn than the habit.

Reading directions is a good first step, but seeing the situation from the perspective of the person who think has the information requires learners to to use their imaginations.  Forget “what would I do if I were in the Hunger Games?” In real life situations, learners need to  be able to put themselves in the place of people who have answers to their questions and then supply the information that person needs in order to answer the question.

The learner has to ask questions such as:

  • What information about the student would I need to explain to that student how to use Edmodo?
  • What information would I need to know to tell someone how to use an Excel spreadsheet?
  • If I were the boss at Big Burger, what information would I need to decide if someone is worth interviewing  to work at Big Burger this summer?
  • What  information about a taxpayer would I need to know to advise someone what federal income tax form to use?
  • If I had to help someone find scholarships available to them, what information would I need to know?

Answering those questions requires the kinds of applied imagination and creativity students will need to use in their everyday lives.  People who can shift perspective to see a situation from another point of view are truly creative thinkers.

In the process of figuring out what kinds of information a person needs to answer a question, the learner often finds out the answer to the question. That, I suspect, is one reason that one sees so few well-written questions in public question forums like Yahoo! Answers: People who did the spade work got the answer without having to ask the question.


Photo credit: “Little cute cat photo 3” uploaded by aljabak

[Broken link removed 04-02-2014]

Test Scores: Feedback and Security

Test scores are a divisive topic. A vocal component of educators thinks standardized tests are the embodiment of all evil, while an equally vocal component of the public thinks tests are the ultimate answer to the most important questions of life. (I exaggerate, but the positions are almost that far apart.)

I don’t find either position plausible or useful.

This morning I reread a report I wrote in 1988 about a distance learning program for at-risk eight graders. Last week I read two novels from Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. One idea from the two very different sources is, I think, relevant to the debate over standardized tests: scores—whether on standardized tests, sales reports, or NFL record books—are feedback to the person who gets them.

In the summer program intended to prevent kids from becoming high school dropouts, students reported the “best” parts of the program were math and English. Teachers reported students’ interest was highest for the social studies, science, and careers topics.

It struck me in 1988 that the reason students placed high value on the program components which didn’t particularly interest them was that those components offered students a way to determine how they were doing.  Their answer to the math problem was either right or wrong;  their paragraph either had six complete sentences (no fragments, comma splices or run-together sentences) or it did not. On the other hand, the topics that interested students didn’t offer them a clear way to assess their understanding. The right/wrong distinction functioned as a security blanket for them.

Mma Makutsi, the secretary/assistant detective at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, also has a security blanket based on test scores.  Mma Makutsi scored 97 percent, the highest score anyone ever earned at Botswana Secretarial College. Mma Makutsi is not good looking, well-off financially, or well-connected socially.  All her hopes of a better future hang on that 97 percent.

If educators want standardized tests to have less clout in the public arena, it seems to me they have to do a lot better job of building alternative feedback methods into the educational process.

Kids need other kinds of feedback (non-test kinds) regularly.

And so do their teachers and school administrators.

Photo credit: Scanning Test uploaded by lm913

What BOE member’s test scores prove

“Multiple Choice” by Vivre available from

A discussion arising from a blog posting early this month on “The Answer Sheet” at The Washington Post has the education community by the ears.

The initial post, “When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids,”  was written by Marion Brady about the experience of a friend who is a Florida school board member. The friend said he’d take the Florida standardized math and reading tests for 10th graders and make his scores public.

Brady described the test-taker as a successful man with an expensive home, condo in the Caribbean, influential friends, and “enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities.”

Later the friend was revealed to be Rick Roach, a member of  Orange County, FL, school board. After he got his scores, Roach said:

The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62%.

“The Answer Sheet” followed up the initial post by offering readers an opportunity to take a subset of questions from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) for 10th grade that gave Roach so much difficulty.

I couldn’t resist the challenge. I took the Reading Quiz  and the  Math Quiz.

FYI, my education is almost identical to Roach’s. Like him, I have a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and additional graduate work (16 hours for me compared to only 15 for him.)  I suspect we’re roughly the same age. We do differ, however, in our work experiences: his career has been primarily in education; I’ve worked in several other sectors as well.

The seven reading questions were based on two contemporary poems. They contained a few polysyllabic words such as individual, threatening, and nurturing, but on the whole the language was what I consider elementary school vocabulary.

Since Roach had said three of the four answers were “pretty good,” I kept looking for trick questions. I thought in most cases two of the four were patently absurd. I got all the questions correct.

The math was a bit harder.  I can see how someone could be frightened off by the problems that looked nothing like the kinds of math questions I remember from high school.  One of the five sample questions required elementary algebra, which I use a couple times a week. The other four questions could be answered with arithmetic, logic, and knowing that the sum of the angles of a triangle is 180 degrees.

Admittedly, I didn’t take the entire test that Roach took. Perhaps the 12 questions chosen for The Washington Post piece were the easiest ones of the FCAT, but I didn’t have any difficulty answering either the math or the reading questions correctly. And the skills the FCAT questions required are skills I use every day.

If Roach’s experience shows how bad the FCAT is, does mine show how good it is?


The experiences of two individuals are not adequate samples from which to draw conclusions about the FCAT or any other test. It might be wonderful, or it might be horrible; there’s no way to know anything about the value of a test based on scores of two individuals.

It worries me that people who should know better are trying to make a case for eliminating standardized testing based on Roach’s example. If the FCAT or any other test does not measure what it’s supposed to measure—what is FCAT supposed to measure?—then it certainly should not be used.  But rather than say it shouldn’t be used because one school board member couldn’t answer the questions, let’s be sure we have more than just one anecdote.

Moreover, in the search for a poster child for the anti-testing movement, Roach is probably not the optimal choice. While the anti-testing community can argue that Roach’s experience shows the test is absurdly difficult, the pro-testing community could argue based on Roach’s experience that the field of education is one place where someone who can’t do 10th grade work can make enough money to get an  expensive home, a condo in the Caribbean, influential friends, and plenty of free time.

If a group of education advocates is going to use Roach’s experience to argue that standardized testing should be eliminated (they’re already at it), I think they had better prepare themselves to see bumper stickers that say:

Educational leaders need followers

Tom Whitby has a passionate plea today for educational leaders willing to speak out for more than “supporting the status quo of additional standardized testing or increasing its influence in education.” He writes:

More testing does not equate to more learning. Why is this not being articulated with passion to the public?

Whitby’s opinions deserve consideration. He’s been in the trenches: 34 years as secondary English teacher in public schools. And he has an impressive list of unpaid service to education as well, from work with the teachers union to blogs, tweets and the Educator’s PLN.

Whitby says that, aside from Diane Ravitch, the people who are chosen by the national media and politicans to speak about education are businesses that benefit directly from the testing and “the man in the street.”

While those spokesperson choices may be unfortunate and unbalanced, they are not unreasonable. If there’s no one in education who is succeeding by educational standards, it makes a kind of sense to call on someone who is succeeding in education as measured by a different standard. And it is, after all, the “man in the street” who pays the tab for schools, so he surely deserves to be heard.

Implicit in Whitby’s phrase “the failure of standardized testing to make positive changes” is a point the anti-testing educators tend to overlook: the need for positive changes in education. The No Child Left Behind act and all the testing nonsense it generated had its basis in genuine concern over whether American schools were actually educating American children. The “man in the street” may not have known much about running a school, but he knew whether the kid running the cash register at the grocery store could make change.

The novice teachers in our schools today are seen as the cohort that didn’t have to undergo rigorous testing in K-12. If they aren’t able to teach so their students can pass tests, that reinforces for the public the reason why tests are needed. People will always believe their eyes rather than a research report.

Leaders, no matter how passionate, have to do more than participate on panels and tweet on Twitter with other educators if they are to have real impact.  Educators have to emerge who are able—and willing—to speak to and listen to the man in the street in their community.  True education reform has to be a grassroots movement. Education reform leaders have to have more than just educators behind them.

Pay hike, learning link not proved

If you believe that all that stands in the way of quality education is better pay for teachers you’ll have your opinion confirmed by reading Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers by Daniel Moulthrop, Ninive Clements Calegari and Dave Eggers (The New Press, 2006).

If you’re not already persuaded, however, this book may make you less inclined to believe that “better schools begin with better pay.”

Moulthrop, a radio reporter, and Calegari are both former classroom teachers. Eggers is the founder of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit providing free literacy and literary arts services for young people, and Calegari is its founding executive director.  Interestingly, 826 Valencia’s programs are provided by unpaid volunteers.

Teachers Have It Easy begins by debunking myths about education. The tone of this section sounds like a teenager’s “Why do I have to? Nobody else has to” whine. The authors appear to think nobody but teachers have to pay to take continuing education classes, nobody else works more than their contract hours, nobody else in a high stress job goes without “a good deal of time off” as compensation. I’ve been a teacher; it was hard, long, and stressful. But whining about how tough teaching is does not convince anyone who hasn’t do it.

As proof that better pay produces better teaching, the authors point to studies by the Education Trust about the effect of high quality instruction on student performance. Note that language: The correlation that was studied was instructional quality and student performance, not teacher pay and student performance. If there’s a study that proves the more you pay teachers the more students learn, I didn’t find it cited in this book.

The bulk of the book is a series of stories about teachers, would-be-teachers and used-to-be-teachers.  These are supposed to show the caliber of people who are not becoming teachers because of the poor pay. Reading the stories, I was inclined to think many of them were not people I wanted teaching.

The final part of Teachers Have It Easy is devoted to profiles of districts that “start paying teacher more.” Reading past the headline, however, it’s clear that none of the success stories began by increasing teacher pay. All began by restructuring the teacher workforce through changes in hiring/budgeting/instructional policies, professional development standards, and then by changes in the way teachers were paid.

In Denver schools, for example, teachers were paid to learn how to write objectives and use them in their classroom. One former teacher, currently a principal, says she never knew objectives were useful; she had been in education for 36 years.  I don’t think someone would last 36 years in a hotel housekeeping position without knowing how to clean a toilet. How could someone rise through the ranks to a supervisory position in education without knowing the instructional equivalent of cleaning a toilet?

Although Moulthrop, Calegari and Eggers fail to prove their thesis that better pay for teachers results in better education for students, they do make the case for paying good teachers well. Indirectly, they also make a case for greatly improved teacher education programs to prepare new teachers to do a better job from their first day in the classroom with instruction in basic skills like how to write an objective.

Good teacher or good lecturer?

A New York Times op-ed piece today “A New Measure for Classroom Quality” sounds as if the author equates teacher effectiveness with lectures.

R. Barker Bausell, a biostatistician and emeritus professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, says that teacher effectivess be determined by “measuring the amount of time a teacher spends delivering relevant instruction.”  He cities research showing efficient teachers produce students who performed well on standardized tests.

Bausell says we need to do something to improve the home envionment for poor kids and provide lots of tutoring, both of which are good options.  However, Bausdell doesn’t explain, at least not to my satisfaction, how come all that tutoring is needed if all that’s involved in good teaching is to deliver relevant content fast. Nor does he address the issue of whether standardized tests measure the kinds of learning students must do.

Bausell says schools can videotape a few minutes of instruction a day and make decisions about teacher effectiveness on that basis.  Bausell doesn’t say anything about having the videotapes reviewed at teacher evaluation centers in Pakistan to take advantage of the time difference and reduce budget outlays. Perhaps he didn’t have space to go into that.