Today, during a break in our recent barrage of standardized tests, I thought it might be interesting (and healthy) to allow my class to depart briefly from the official standards and benchmarks that so thoroughly define what we do each day. So I asked my students, “If you could spend time in class trying to find the answer to any question you can imagine, what question would you want to research?”
I got nothing more than a collection of funny looks from my students, so I decided to give them an example. Trying to say something none of the kids would be likely to choose, I explained how I personally know almost nothing about different types of trees. My question to research could therefore be something like: What are some common types of trees in our area, and how can you tell them apart?
After that example, a few timid hands popped up, and I eagerly awaited their questions. What would they say? What types of things would be THE QUESTION that interested each of them most in life? And they began…
“Does God exist?”
“Who were the first humans?”
“What’s heaven like?”
“Is there life in another spot in the universe?”
“Could humans ever teleport themselves?”
“What happens when you die?”
“How could heaven go on and on if more and more people keep dying and going there?”
“What was the world like thousands of years ago?”
“What’s the Bermuda Triangle?”
“What does God look like?”
Whoa. I hadn’t expected that. Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t expect it. In a strange way, listening to many of their questions made the standards and outcomes we all have to follow seem pretty insignificant. (My trees example suddenly sounded pretty foolish as well.) It struck me that the types of questions they wanted to learn about were right in line with the “Big Ideas” Montessori theory believes that education should begin with.
Of course, most of the questions the kids posed are ones that public school teachers nowadays feel compelled to dodge as much as possible, and in fact, I didn’t make any effort to answer them today. The more I think about this, though, the more I realize that when we as public schools refuse to tackle the significant questions of life that our students care deeply about, we in some ways exacerbate the “schooliness” I wrote about two posts ago.
As a result, school becomes the place where you learn about everything except what you were wondering about.
Or, more bluntly: School becomes the place where you learn about everything except what really matters.