I recently read two articles from completely different places but that spoke to the same issue – how do we engage teenagers with the topics that we are compelled to teach? These two articles are Teacher Constructed Prompts to Assist Question Development and Personalizing Learning: Think Like A Teenager.

The second article, by Ellen McNair, took typical questions that are based on Common Core standards and restated them according to teenager interest. Examples of these are:

  • Standards-based question: What are the basic tenets of democracy?
  • Think-like-a-teenager questions: Who has authority over me? Who really has any authority?
  • Standards-based question: What were the causes of the Civil War?
  • Think-like-a-teenager question: Is anything worth fighting for?
  • Standards-based question: What are the factors that influence solubility?
  • Think-like-a-teenager question: What is the difference between magic or mystery and science?
  • Standards-based question: What is the significance of cell specialization?
  • Think-like-a-teenager questions: When is being different an advantage? What differences between you and your siblings or cousins are significant?

The first article, by Rebecca Mueller, feels very similar although it is rather more academic in tone. Mueller asks what makes a question compelling and suggests several ways to think about it, for example:

Is it debatable? Is there more than one answer.

Do I want to answer it? Do I care about it?

Is it too academic?

Do I have the resources and time to get students there?

Does it lead to more questions?

The basis behind both very helpful articles is twofold:

  1. If I start with thinking before I delve into content, the content becomes the means to a much more interesting end with deeper learning outcomes.
  2. If the topic is personal to the individual student, buy-in and commitment is likely to be authentic rather than perfunctory or to get the grade, and the investigation will therefore be more incisive and engaging.

McNair gives the compelling example of the biology teacher who saw what she was doing in the library and tried it in her classroom. McNair writes: “A biology teacher happened to be in the library and, seeing the productive chaos, asked McNair what was going on. She was so taken with the idea that she launched the next year’s biology curriculum by putting materials for each of the year’s units on tables in the library and having students peruse the resources and jot their “wonderings” about each topic on sticky notes. The teacher posted the notes around the perimeter of the classroom and at the beginning of each new unit put the pertinent questions on a whiteboard and Google doc and let students know that they would be answering their own questions over the next six weeks. “Brilliant!” says McNair.”

All students, not just teenagers, just don’t know what to do or are very suspicious of teachers who ask if they have any questions or ask questions that are open-ended. They fear being shown up as not knowledgeable or don’t know how to answer because they don’t know what “the teacher wants”. It is good to remember that, as the teacher, I have unparalleled power to define any individual student’s chance of success and level of success since I control curriculum, assessment, and relationship parameters. Putting thinking / wondering first as McNair does and analyzing our own practice using Mueller’s prompts helps me to imagine my unit/s in potentially very different and more effective ways.

The last two of Mueller’s prompts – do I have the time and the resources, and am I willing to travel with the students as the investigation develops – are particularly convicting. As a teacher, it is often legitimate to complain that the curriculum doesn’t allow me to think and investigate in the ways that I would prefer to if I had unlimited time. At the same time, that can also be a cop-out to cover up the real truth that I don’t trust my teenagers to lead in my classroom. If I maintain control, then it is clearly the student’s fault when they don’t meet my high standards. If I give up control, then it is easier to assume the fault myself if things don’t go well.

Teachers ask between 400 and 700 questions a day. Which ones get asked are critical. But students are not far behind. Alison Gopnik in The Gardener and the Carpenter states that preschoolers average nearly 75 questions an hour in their state of neuroplasticity. Another study found that four-year old girls asked their mothers questions on average every 2 minutes and 36 seconds. Teenagers are in the same neuroplastic state. They also ask hundreds of questions a day, but more often of their peers than of adults. So they are as curious as at any other time of their lives and want answers to fundamental issues.

The following questions might be useful as you think about your teaching of teenagers and questioning:

  • Why do we reward right answers more than interesting questions?
  • If teenagers don’t ask good questions, can we teach them and model it ourselves?
  • If teenagers ask most questions of each other, is that something to take advantage of in our classes?
  • If every teenager had a copy of Bloom’s taxonomy, how would you help them use it and to what end?
  • How can I learn to ask questions through a teenage lens? Can they help me? What is an interesting question to them?
  • If teenagers had more control of “my” classroom, could we get more done, more quickly, at a deeper level?
  • How would my administrator answer these questions? Do I dare ask them to?