What is worth knowing?

In my last post, I wrote about page 61 in Teaching as a Subversive Activity – where Postman and Weingartner asked the readers to contribute their questions to help shape an inquiry-based education, in response to their initial question “What is worth knowing?”

And now, I’m wondering… If you’re reading this…

What is worth knowing to you? What are the important questions? What are the unimportant questions that should still be asked?

What is worth knowing?

To start things off, my contributions to my campus’ local copy of TaaSA were:

  • Who am I?
  • Who cut the cheese?
  • How do I ride a skateboard? (actually, this was asked by my 5 year old son Evan)

inquiry as a subversive activity

I’ve been reading Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (more info), and I’m finding myself extremely drawn into it. It’s the kind of book that I may have read as an undergrad, but just wasn’t ready for. It’s the kind of book where you need to be ready to really engage with it before it makes sense. And it’s the kind of book that has me rethinking pretty much everything, and seeing new patterns everywhere. The book was written before I was born, and published only a few months before I was. But it feels so intrinsically relevant and important today – maybe moreso now than in 1969.

One of the chapters is describing inquiry, and what an honest adoption of inquiry would mean for curriculum, education, and society at large. What does it mean when curriculum isn’t predefined, and must be pulled from individuals and groups through the act of questioning, and the process of making sense? What does that look like?

Although much of it rings as important, even critical, to adopt in education, I think a full-scale adoption of inquiry would require more than just a tweak of the education system – it would require essentially nuking every concept of curriculum, and assessment, which would in turn require nuking large parts of entire educational institutions (and non-educational ones as well) and rebuilding from scratch. Sounds nice, but it’s just not practical.

Then, I turned the page and hit something I hadn’t seen before. A blank page, filled with handwritten sentences. At first I thought there was something wrong with the book. Postman and Weingartner had been talking about eliciting questions from the reader. And their implementation was to actually leave room inside the book for contributions from the reader. Not a blank page at the back of the book with “Notes:” stenciled on the top. Not a generic page for random scribbling. A blank page, with the specific purpose of eliciting responses from the reader: What questions would you ask if there was no curriculum? What is worth knowing?

page 61

It’s a simple technique, but shows a few things in action.

  1. The simple act of honestly asking for contributions radically changes the nature of the experience. One is no longer simply “reading” the book – they are helping to write it.
  2. Inquiry doesn’t need to be a Big Scary Thing – it can be as small and simple as asking a question, and allowing all responses. Note that the authors didn’t say “what topics are important?” or “what are the fundamental subjects that should be taught?” – they asked “what is worth knowing?” and that is a pretty simple yet powerful question, leading to further simple yet powerful questions in response.
  3. Starting from a set of open-ended questions, one can start to define some paths for further inquiry pretty quickly. Inquiry isn’t chaos – it’s finding out what matters to the individual participants, and then searching for strategies to finding solutions and answers. It’s not the absence of content, or the absence of direction. It’s placing the focus of the activities of teaching and learning on the individual, and finding what their needs are, in various contexts.

And others have used similar strategies to draw people into conversations and presentations. I was able to help facilitate an inquiry-based session a few years ago with Brian and Alan, and it was one of the most powerful experiences I can remember. Stephen Downes has been doing this for years – I had the pleasure to see his new EduRSS (now gRSShopper) backchannel running at TLt this summer during his presentation.

stephen downes with the backchannel

Sure, some of the responses are silly when there are no restraints placed on contributions. But some responses are deep, thoughtful, relevant, engaging, engaged, and enriching. And the participants care about what is going on.

If inquiry is honest, and participants are working together to identify questions that they feel are valid – and then to answer them – that is a powerfully subversive activity that can change education from simple content dissemination into something that is so much more engaging and relevant. It changes education from being an industrial age “teaching factory” to an organic, adaptive, extensible process.

And I’m not using subversion in a negative sense. From Wikipedia:

Subversion refers to an attempt to overthrow structures of authority, including the state. It is an overturning or uprooting.