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Teacher as Questioner

Teacher as Questioner

What is culture? Can a country share a culture? A city? An organization? A family? How do we change the way a group of people think?

These are my essential questions that I have been asking for the last 15 years. These questions started when I was in graduate school. I had a teacher who taught a class about diversity in education. Mr. Johnny asked one day: “What is culture, but a shared set of norms of a group of people?” Up until that day, I had always thought of culture as the food, music, and art of a country’s people. I suppose it was those things but was it limited to only them? I started noticing that our very classroom had its own set of norms: we valued speaking openly about race and sexuality. We believed we should let one person speak at a time. We believed that everyone should feel safe and belong. Culture.

I started noticing that my family has its own culture. We celebrate Christmas for two days, rather than one. We like to celebrate with a game night: the entire family gathers on Christmas Eve, sleeping in the same house, and then having an early morning and a large meal together the next day. Culture.

When I finished grad school, I moved to Japan and noticed that men in downtown Tokyo liked to have David-Bowie-Labyrinth hair and carry, what appeared to me, purses. Japanese believed in being silent on the trains and being punctual. Culture.

I moved to Vietnam a few years later and got a job as tech coach. Now I am a cultural influencer of my own organization. I am there to influence the way people think about tech and coach them to use modern tools in their own practices. Mr. Johnny’s question has come back to me again. What is culture? How do I change it and how do I change people?
The beautiful thing that happened here is that I had a series of questions that I continued to ask and through experience, I began to shape my knowledge. Am I done asking this question? Heck no! But the incredible thing is that I will never stop asking it.

I am not necessarily here to talk to you about my own essential question. I am trying to illustrate my own life-long question and how it has been meaningful to me. With the above example, I would like to advocate for us to encourage people to ask their own big questions. So often, teachers supply the essential questions to their students by prewriting their units. What if students could pose their own meaningful questions that were burning inside them?

This blog post is inspired by my COETAIL course which asks us to write a response to the prompt: How will you actively seek out knowledge instead of letting it come to you? My answer is really to help our students to find those bigfatjuicyohsogood questions. Hey, that’s not something new, is it? Inquiry! Intrinsic motivation! Facilitation! It’s what we know as good practice today, isn’t it? No. You are right, gentle reader.

What I am advocating for As Diana Laufenberg tells us in her TEDx Talk, we live in a time with data surplus. It’s not necessarily a matter of waiting for information to come to us. It’s a matter of us having an open-ended question that we are deeply curious to answer and using that question to guide us through the sea of information. No question, no engaging with online communities. We lurk, we consume without connection to our lives. Nothing is relevant if we are not curious.

The Kwik Brain Podcast (below) has a great and short episode about asking the right questions. It’s a must listen.

Kwik Brain, Episode 63 with Cal Fussman

So we really have to ask a few questions of ourselves. How are we curious learners? Are we modeling curiosity as teachers and leaders? Are we asking the right questions of our students that encourage them to dive into their interests? Do we even know our students well enough to know what interests they have?

As teacher-coaches, we have to start with relationships with our students. When we know them, we can encourage their own burning questions. Only then can we guide them through the vast amounts of information online to their truths.


  • Reyna Lazarou -

    Hey Alex,
    Bravo, friend. This is a great post about the power of questioning and the magic of letting curiosity be the guide. I especially enjoyed the podcast you shared; what an interesting human. Can you imagine sitting in a room with some of the most influential people in the world and being left to generate the questions that will lead to something meaningful? It almost makes me wish I’d gone into journalism;)
    In our day-to-day contexts, it can be easy to get lost in answers and miss out on opportunities to generate powerful questions. Your last couple of paragraphs were a nice reminder that we need to be prioritizing this with students and colleagues as the basis of learning. Stepping back into the classroom has given me the platform to do a lot more of this work with students, and this week’s resources have spurred some thinking about how I can embed questioning in multiple ways to steer the upcoming units. Thanks again for the thought-provoking and reflective post this week- I look forward to more of this over the course of our COETAIL journey.

    • Thanks, Reyna. I appreciate your encouragement. I felt a bit worried making this post because in some way it was more of a reaction to the prompt from this week’s COETAIL unit… and not so much a direct response.

      But yeah, I do believe that starting with a solid question will turn us into information seekers since we have a “BECAUSE”. Keep up the good work, my friend.


  • Megan Bartlett -

    Hi Alex,

    Your post reminded me of a book that I read recently called, A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. Its really resonated with me, especially the observation that young children are natural questionnaires yet this trails off and how can we better nurture it? It is through asking powerful questions that we will find powerful answers. Definitely worth a read/listen if you have not already.

  • Alex, I like your spin on this week’s reading materials. As you pointed out, we do indeed live in a time of information abundance. Instant ready-time access to every bit of information we may need. I often wonder how do we sift through all of it to find what we really need? Or, how do we sift through it to find the most meaningful information?

    I loved Fussman’s story about the letter from Johnson’s office, once he became President, it really illustrates the power of a good question! Tangentially, I found it so fascinating that the neighbours came over to see the letter and just touch it, truly a different time!

    Perhaps asking better questions is the solution to sifting through all the information and finding what we actually need. Fussman makes a solid point, in that we often don’t ask questions as adults because there is a fear that exists that we will be ridiculed by our peers. If we could only channel our inner four year old, we might get the answers that we truly are looking for. I know myself, that I have sat in meetings, or been to events, where I have not asked what I needed.

    If this outwardly inquisitive nature does start to change when we are 4 years old, what does this mean, for us as teachers, when working with middle school and high school students? How do we get them to ask good questions, or questions in general? It involves good modelling, I think, and setting up an environment where they can let go of those fears. Also, using good protocols for the students. I am curious to hear what others think about this challenge?

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