The Necessity of Questioning Everything

Teacher and theologian David Dark (what a cool name – so much better than Finkle!) wrote a book I enjoyed titled The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. Since that title is taken, and since I teach in a secular setting, I’ve titled this post “The Necessity of Questioning Everything.” It doesn’t mean I think questioning is any less sacred than Dark does.

When I started teaching, I was uncomfortable with some of what I saw happening in the field of education and in the profession of teaching. As the years have gone by, I’ve gone from discomfort to outright questioning so much of what is standard procedure in education.

I may go into more detail about the things I question in later posts, but for now it is important to simply list all the things I question.

I question our focus on grades and point-gathering and GPAs. Our focus should be on learning, but we have trained our students to focus on the numbers, the credentials, the bottom line. This is where both academic dishonesty and student disengagement start.

I question our obsession with standardized testing. Testing took away 23 days of teaching in my classroom this year. Since I receive my students’ scores on state tests after they have left my class, and because I can never see the actual test questions my students missed, testing gives me no useful data I can use in teaching my students. Testing wasn’t designed to rate teachers, but we use it for that purpose anyway. Testing sucks up millions of dollars that could be put to good use in the classroom – for instance, by hiring more teachers and lowering class sizes.

I question the system’s intense focus on standardization, assessment, and measurement. When we standardized curriculum in the name of measuring things, we are really standardizing people. We are ruining the very learning we are trying to measure. When students need to write to a common prompt every time they write in order to make the “assessment” valid, we rob them of their voice, their autonomy, and any possibility of a real reason to write. For the sake of rating them on an arbitrary rubric so we can gather data, we force them to go through the motions of writing instead of actually writing. We are measuring nothing.

I question all our traditional discipline programs, procedures, and philosophies. We are holding students to the bottom of Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral Development: I don’t want to get in trouble. The way our codes of conduct read, you would think we expect every student to be a future criminal, and that we are preparing them to live in a totalitarian state instead of a free democracy. We need to be encouraging them to use their freedom for the good of all instead of burdening them with pages of rules and consequences. There is a place for rules and consequences – but they should be the exception and not the rule.

I question our constant harping on College and Career, as if the only purpose of education is to go make money or go to college so you can (hopefully) make more money. There are many reasons to be educated. Making a living is one of them, but it’s not the only one. You can make lots of money, but still be emotionally, morally, relationally, and spiritually bankrupt. Maybe we should emphasize being Making-a-Living-and-Making a Life-readiness. It’s wordier, but it’s a more valid statement of what we should be after.

I question our lip service to making students Life-long Learners. Life long learners are curious. They follow their own interests. They develop new interests. They read independently. They explore new ideas and synthesize new information. They are skeptical. They believe in the usefulness and in the sheer fun of knowing things. Our standardized, buckled down, no-autonomy-or-creativity-allowed system tends to create life-long learning- avoiders instead.

With each of the things I questioned above, I wound up questioning our focus or our obsession with something. In questioning our focus, I am questioning what we are paying attention to. We are paying attention to all the wrong things, and the things that really matter, the things that could make education meaningful and relevant and life-changing, are cast aside, unnoticed.

Except that some of our students do notice. And they question everything we are doing, too.