On Questioning and Silence: Subversive Activity (Part 2)

Some of the educational reforms considered radical in the late ‘60s have come to be accepted – even institutionalised – in our current school system (as we saw in Part 1). But others have been less warmly embraced. The ‘inquiry method’ of learning is a case in point.

In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, the authors – Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner – cast a critical eye over conventional approaches to teaching. Following Marshall McLuhan’s dictum “the medium is the message”, they regard the method and the content of learning as intertwined. They condemn the narrow focus on ‘covering’ syllabi and on seeking to transmit content, wholesale, to largely passive students. They warn that school authorities usually underestimate the importance of how content is presented. And they propose that teachers can remedy these ills by employing an ‘inquiry method’: encouraging students to ask substantive questions, play a role in determining which problems are worth studying, and consider which procedures of inquiry should be used.

Postman and Weingartner insist that “once you have learned how to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.” They don’t go in for questioning that requires students to guess what the teacher is thinking, or parrot memorised material. Good questions, they suggest, are ones that boost the will and the capacity to learn, increase joy in learning, build confidence and open minds to unsuspected possibilities. Presumably they’re appalled that “the most important and intellectual ability [humanity] has yet developed – the art and science of asking questions – is not taught in school!”

The book calls for a revolution. I’d like to believe it’s already occurred, but my own schooling (and more recently, my experiences of working with children) has led me to doubt it. Perhaps it lies ahead; The Philosophy Club can be part of it.

In our collaborative enquiries, children pursue big, unanswered questions that tickle their curiosity. They propose a range of possible responses and support these responses with reasons. In the give-and-take of dialogue, the children are responsible for evaluating whatever arguments are on the table, thinking up alternatives, and making up their own minds. Collaboration is vital to the intellectual process of enquiry, because the kids build on each other’s ideas and they’re provoked to reflect very critically when they encounter divergent opinions. They become constructively sceptical, recognising that no claim – not even their own – deserves to be unquestioningly accepted.

It’s worth reading Teaching Students to Ask Questions Instead of Answering Them, Matthew Bowker’s account of his distinctive approach to enquiry learning. It’s a rich paper that covers a lot of ground before reaching this conclusion:

I have found it extremely important to learn to practice silence in class. This means being comfortable with one or two minutes of silence, if necessary, while the conversation stalls. If the teacher is always ready to comment or ask a provocative question, then students do not have the room (or the need) to take on those responsibilities. Often, after a long silence, students will pose the question that has left them feeling stuck with the material. Sometimes that question is simply, ‘Who cares?’ which I take to be a crucially important question, one I explore as often as possible.

In much the same spirit, Postman and Weingartner appeal to teachers to

confront your students with some sort of problem which might interest them. Then, allow them to work the problem through… Don’t be frightened by the long stretches of silence that might occur. Silence may mean that the students are thinking.

Sound advice, I think. It’s not sufficient to pay lip service to developing independent thinking, and we can’t expect students to assimilate thinking skills by accident or by osmosis. We need to make time for explicitly metacognitive work. And we need to regard the cultivation of good thinking as central to what it means to educate.

Go to Part 3 →

The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.



2 responses to “On Questioning and Silence: Subversive Activity (Part 2)

  1. Howdy
    I think thert is considerable insight on how to establish learning spaces that reflect Postman and Weingartner’s ideas. There is increasing recognition of the skill-set they outlined as being important. The latest nomenclature associated with these learning attributes is 21st century learners or neo-millennial students (the latter an unfortunate and time stamped moniker). Understandings of space have emerged to facilitate practice relevant to this learning.

    Jos Boys (2011) writes that learning is understood as a transitional and liminal space, “where participants negotiate their way via particular boundary conditions and specific social and spatial practices and repertoires”. Architects are responding by designing spaces that recognise the contestability of notions of teaching and learning and that offer multiple possibilities for the teaching and learning process. Moreover, Lippmann (2010) sees the learning environment as a dynamic tension between student, teacher and physical environment. The space itself offers a certain means of engaging in learning.

    Open plan learning settings offer an ambigious and “open ended”, “loose fit” environment (McGregor, 2004). Such spaces offer conditions for negotiation between learner and teacher to take place. Indeed, such spaces embody this approach. Within such spaces the development of skills central to Postman and Weingartner’s are rendered necessary. Inasmuch as Postman and Weingartner’s core skills parallel philosophical methods, there is a clear case to be made that open plan learning spaces are encouraging, even demanding, of philosophical skills ( .

  2. Hi Scott,

    Thank you for your comments, and I’m sorry for such a belated reply. It’s fascinating to consider how physical environments might interact with teachers’ and students’ cognitive states and relationships.

    I’ve just come across an interesting DEECD literature review that looks at the connection between learning spaces and student outcomes: http://www.deakin.edu.au/arts-ed/efi/pubs/deecd-reports-blackmore-learning-spaces.pdf
    It draws some positive conclusions about the influence of building design on student engagement, motivation and classroom performance in particular instances where open plan spaces have been matched with suitable teaching approaches.

    One resonant finding was Blatchford et al.’s (2006) observation (familiar to me from my own practice) that group work led 10–11 year olds to “more active and sustained engagement, more connectedness and more higher order inferential joint reasoning.”

    To qualify that observation, the DEECD review recognises that group work doesn’t actually depend on particular spatial arrangements – and nor do open spaces necessarily foster group work. “Beware of architectural determinism,” say the authors. Aside from physical spaces, lots of other factors come into play in building a culture of collaborative enquiry – among them school leadership, pedagogical innovation, curricula, student interdependence and social skills. Not to mention ensuring that teachers understand how to use new learning spaces appropriately.

    What comes through strongly in the lit review is the paucity of research on effective learning environments, and associated scarcity of evidence for a direct causal impact of physical spaces on learning outcomes. Here are a few quotes to this effect:

    “‘…there is overall a lack of empirical evidence about the impact of individual elements of the physical environment which might inform school design at a practice level to support student achievement’” (Woolner et al. 2007).

    “‘Not only is the evidence incomplete… but the research that has been done seems to be largely predicated on a traditional view of ‘chalk and talk’ learning in standardised ‘one size fits all’ institutions’” (Higgins et al., 2005).

    “Wolff’s (2002) systematic analysis of how physical environments support and encourage collaborative project-based learning found that it was extremely difficult to determine the essence of what was important in terms of the design” (Blackmore et al., 2011).

    So it seems that your research is sorely needed! I hope it’s going well and look forward to talking again soon =)

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