[iDC] Inspiring Questions

Michael Wesch mike.wesch at gmail.com
Mon Aug 22 16:28:57 UTC 2011

Hello all,

I always love/hate this time of year - gearing up for the semester and
doing some really deep thinking about what our students *really* need
to learn (or more broadly, the type of person they need to become) and
how we can help them.  I'm actually not teaching this year, but 7
years of this kind of thing and I seem to have fallen into a pattern.
I just can't go through August with out getting my head all messed up
over these questions.

This year I have reached some tiny bit of clarity.  Not that I have
"the answer" - but I have come to realize that I have been spending
the past 7 years of teaching trying to do one thing (hereafter known
as "THE GOAL") while struggling with five basic observations about
learning and education today.

So first, THE GOAL: Inspire great questions.

Since all good thinking begins with a good question, it strikes me
that if we are ultimately trying to create “active lifelong learners”
with “critical thinking skills” and an ability to “think outside the
box” it might be best to start by getting students to ask better
questions. Unfortunately, we can find a great deal of advice on how to
ask good questions of students – non-rhetorical, open-ended, etc. –
but we rarely share ideas on how to get students to ask good

When I talk about “good questions,” I mean the kind of questions that
force students to challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions and
see their own underlying biases. Oftentimes the answer to a good
question is irrelevant – the question is an insight in itself. The
only answer to the best questions is another good question. And so the
best questions send students on rich and meaningful lifelong quests,
question after question after question.

A great question is at the heart of Maxine Greene's Social
Imagination: "the capacity to invent visions of what should be and
what might be in our deficient society."  Really great questions are a
step beyond what normally passes for "critical thinking" and become
the generative source for finding solutions (and of course, new

So, on to the

5 observations:

1.  This is hard. Our formal learning environments and structures make
it difficult to inspire great questions.  Inspiring great questions is
*really hard.*   "Great Teachers" often get by with being called
"great" and even "the best ever" on teaching evaluations without ever
inspiring the kinds of questions that inspire life long learning.  (I
have come to hate getting effusive positive evaluation comments that
somehow indicate that the student loved me, but there was clearly
little or no growth for the student involved)  There are many
structures working against us - from tenure structures that restrict
experimentation and time-commitment, to grading procedures and and
curriculum standards (often requiring standardized testing of the
multiple-guessing sort).  The most common questions in this
environment are often mundane administrative questions: "Can I use
Wikipedia?"  "How long does this paper need to be?"  "What do we need
to know for this test?"  Such questions illustrate the 2nd

2. Students are tuning out.  Large numbers of students are disengaged
altogether or engaged in nothing more than the "getting by" game
(doing just enough for a class to "get by" and get the grade they
want).  It is rare that students hold the same lofty goals of
learning, critical thinking, etc. that their teachers hold for them.
Students have very different goals, which is the 3rd observation:

3. Students are struggling to figure out who they are, and who and
what they want to become.  This is what Anthony Giddens has called the
"core project" of people in late modernity.   As Charles Taylor and
others have pointed out, the modern world is one in which identity and
recognition are not givens.   Social networking and other online tools
provide a platform for much of this quest.  They tune out of class and
logon to Facebook, which leads to the 4th observation:

4.  There is something in the air.  In most of our classrooms (those
with WiFi, 3G, or 4G access), 2 billion people are connecting and
collaborating in the air all around us, building a vast digital
archive that represents a hefty portion of the entire body of human
knowledge ever created.   But thinking about this in terms of
information and knowledge misses the 5th observation that

5. We increasingly live in a network society.  Many of our
institutions, organizations, and social processes are operating less
and less through stable groups and hierarchies and more through
flexible networks and network logic.  This transformation has been
happening for several decades and precedes the Web.  Technologies of
mobility, transport, and communication provided the infrastructure for
these changes.  We have labeled such changes "globalization,"
"flexible accumulation," "postmodernism," etc.   All are aspects and
descriptions of this change to a network society / network logic.

New media enter this stream to create new types of conversation,
exchange, and collaboration. But the promise of these media are not
without disruption and peril. While new media bring with them new
possibilities for openness, transparency, engagement, and
participation, they also bring new possibilities for surveillance,
manipulation, distraction, and control. The negative side of this
ledger seem especially eminent in the face of widespread ignorance
about the uses, misuses, power, and (sometimes unintended)
consequences of new media. If we do not quickly raise our digital
literacy rates we stand to lose much more than we gain from the
promises of new media.

Indeed, depending on what date one would fix as the beginning point of
the network society, it would not be hard to argue that we are more
self-absorbed, less empathic, more unequal, and in overall worse shape
than we were when this all began.

Which makes it especially critical and disheartening that  (1) our
schools are not inspiring big questions, (2)students are disengaged,
and (3) pursuing their own interests in the pursuit of finding
themselves, while embracing (4) the ubiquitous network for
entertainment and distraction while failing to see and harness it as
the most remarkable collaboration and creation machine ever created
that they could use to create a better world if they can come to
understand (5) networks and network logic.

Hopefully by the end of this conversation I'll have a bit more clarity
on some solutions, but I thought I should start out first by clearly
outlining the goal and the challenges as I see them.

Looking forward to the conversation!

~ Mike

Michael Wesch, PhD
Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology
Coffman Chair for University Distinguished Teaching Scholars
2010 NITLE Fellow
2009 National Geographic Emerging Explorer
2008 US Professor of the Year
2007 Wired Magazine Rave Award Winner
Director of the Digital Ethnography Working Group
Kansas State University
mwesch at ksu.edu

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