Learning starts with questions and ends with answers and not vice versa


By casolivier, 1 January, 2017

Are you also making your learners dumb, dumber, dumbest?


I should rather direct the question to you. How clever did teachings you received made you?


What I mean is: To what extend did the knowledge copied from somewhere (textbooks and people) and pasted into your mind made you clever? Especially after you memorized the knowledge and parrotlike regurgitated it into a test paper or portfolio?


Or did you only gained insight when you struggled, discussed and solved problems?


Are you downgrading your learners to barrels which you attempt to fill with your insights?


Colleagues we are in the conceptual age, where people WANT to think and solve problems. The problem is that training providers (read schools, private providers and universities, etc) don’t posses skills to empower their learners with thinking skills.


Or are you the exception?


The conceptual age needs master keys are like lenses of the mind, which enable us to discover new relationships that are not clearly spelled out in standard definitions and answers. These L- and R-brain lenses or modes are geared towards a critical thinking mind, a mind that tends to seek logic, to generate critical questions, to create new ideas and to assemble bigger pictures.


Each set of lenses changes the landscape, causing the mind to enter in a specific thinking mode resulting in a unique kaleidoscopic view on a topic. For example, asking critical questions causes the other three modes to move into the mind’s blind spot, ready to take over from the current mode when needed. As thinking modes team up as if they were part of a relay team, they shed more light on a problem in an endeavor to find a solution. Teaming up of the thinking modes contributes to the definition of conceptual age learning.

Thinking modes may be part of the reason why we sometimes go to bed with a seemingly unsolved problem and wake up the next morning with the solution, which in hindsight looks so simple. We were probably stuck in a specific thinking mode and were unable to shift gears and engage in other thinking modes. It could therefore be argued that it was not our problem-solving ability that let us down, but the inability to access other thinking modes that were in our blind spot at the time. It seems that thinking modes have to negotiate with each other on which one takes the lead. When following this approach, thinking modes act as guides that interpret the formal curriculum so that the secrets embedded in the curriculum are explored and discovered. Such negotiations enable one thinking mode to take over from another and take thinking further to establish new conceptual configurations at higher cognitive levels, which go beyond textbook content.

Normally when speaking about thinking we tend to think that it happens in the brain, which is correct. A thinking mode, however, is a state of mind which involves thinking attitudes and dispositions. The mind is not a physical object like the brain. One way of tracking down or defining what the critical thinking mind is, is to use the example of a disturbed or peaceful mind, which gives the idea that the “state of the mind” is controlled by external factors, which is true. Trauma causes a disturbed state in the mind, while a tranquil environment may cause a peaceful state in the mind.

We are also in full control of our minds. As a group of teacher colleagues, we may decide to pay a visit to a restaurant to enjoy a recommended fish dish. One or two of the members may spontaneously change their minds and decide to order a meat dish from the menu. Changing one’s mind normally happens when new information becomes known.

We have more control over our minds than we may think. Your employer may forget to pay your salary into your bank account, and since it is a Friday evening there is nothing you can do. You can either let the reality rule your mind and cause you to sulk and have a bad weekend, or you can consciously decide to be cheerful and enjoy the weekend. This example clearly illustrates the importance of not only possessing well-developed L-directed thinking skills for thinking logically, critically, creatively and synthetically, but also of having well-developed R-directed thinking attitudes and dispositions, or emotional intelligence. Although the mind is not the brain and the brain is not the mind, the brain has everything to do with the mind and vice versa.

The different thinking modes enable 21st century learners to form a solid basis from which they reason, and develop their own opinions during debates where ideas are floated around and controversial issues are discussed.

Thinking modes leave tracks. It is possible most of the time to identify in hindsight with which thinking modes learners were engaged and when, and which thinking modes were absent, especially when analyzing the outcomes of the learners’ efforts. It is possible to recognize which thinking contains logical elements, critical questioning elements that caused a change in the direction of thinking, creative insight and conclusive big picture thinking. The tracks left by the learners are important when teachers need to establish the way the learners are thinking = “climbing into another person’s mind.”

Depending on the nature of a learning challenge, thinking modes play different roles. Sometimes one mode can be invasive, haunting the mind to the extent that its absence can cost you a night’s sleep. Sometimes thinking modes are obedient and complaisant, sometimes supportive and helpful, and sometimes they vanish while you wait for another to reach maturity before taking over.

Thinking modes are not new to us, we use them as lenses in everyday life to analyze features, processes and functions without recognizing them and consciously knowing how we use them.  We use thinking modes to alternate between opposing thoughts. They are involved when our mind swings like a pendulum between different views. We use them to determine new relationships, for example consistencies and inconsistencies. We use them to chain concepts into new patterns. We use them to unpack and re-categorize existing patterns. We use them to determine cause, effect and connections. We use them to predict, diagnose, identify alternatives, and formulate conclusions and recommendations. We use them to check our own thinking and conduct reviews. We use them to present arguments, state results and justify arguments. We use them to determine merit, value, efficacy, advantages and disadvantages, worth, authenticity, validity, impact and significance of information. We use them to identify areas of overlap between contesting opinions. We use them to estimate and guesstimate, and to extrapolate based on relationships of known information.

Well-developed critical thinking modes enable learners to shape their individual experiences into their own true “individual curricula”, which among others,  reflect their “failures”, “Ah-ha moments” (insight)  and other experiences. These individual curricula represent the authentic learning of each learner but do not ignore or negate the formal curriculum. Learners construct their own individual curricula by dismantling the formal curriculum into its building blocks by applying their thinking modes.

Teaching and learning in the 21st century need a paradigm shift from the traditional teaching  approach where the teachers ask the questions at the end of a lesson or theme, towards learners asking questions during  the lesson or theme. The paradigm shift involves moving teachers from exposing content to learners to utilizing content to serve as answers to questions that are not currently on the agenda and will only be asked at the end. Such teachers expect learners to make connections between the teachers’ knowledge or insight that they shared during the lesson and the questions the teachers intend to ask at the end of the lesson to assess whether the learners can make the connections. The conceptual age requires school systems to empower learners with questioning skills. Teachers should realize that learning starts with questions and ends with answers and not vice versa.

Learning by asking questions and getting answers to obtain new and verified truths differs from receiving verified and ready-made truths or subject content from teachers. What used to be objective and indisputable content provided by teachers and textbooks become subjective explorative thinking resources for learners. Gaining new insights and meaning becomes a subjective process related to each learner’s current subjective realm, own set of values and understanding of the world. The challenge for the 21st century teacher is to realize that in a class each learner has a unique disposition and distinct point of departure at the beginning of the lesson, and that the challenge is to enable the learners to reach the same end point. This approach differs from traditional teaching where teachers’ are of the opinion that they start their lesson by ensuring that all learners are on the same page at the beginning as well as at the end of the lesson. However, as the teaching progresses, this ideal falls apart and the lesson ends up with as many interpretations as there are learners. The questions teachers ask at the end of the lesson are a remediation attempt to deal with the many anticipated misunderstandings that could arise. Metaphorically speaking, traditional teaching can be compared to a double concave lens, which diverts a light ray emitted by a single source, i.e., the teacher, who ensures that similar sets of information are available to the learners to avoid any misunderstanding. This lens, however, provides sets of diverted rays resulting in dispersed understanding by learners.

Metaphorically speaking, conceptual age teaching can be viewed as a double convex lens, which converges light rays to a single focal point, i.e., teachers who allow different viewpoints at the beginning of the lesson and the lesson to end in a common focal point (understanding) at the end.

To reach the destination of the same understanding of a theme implies an individual thinking journey for each learner. This is a journey where learners have to ask their own sets of questions to break up definitions and standard answers and repackage them in their own new structures. Even though the structures may be flawed and filled with mistakes, blunders or misconceptions, they are part of the individual’s learning journey.

Learning journeys in the conceptual age comprise an individual’s narratives about a learning topic. Each narrative becomes the individual’s learning path or true curriculum. Each learner’s curriculum has its own storyline, deviations and roundabouts. For teaching to be successful, it should therefore be recognized that there are as many true individual curricula or learning journeys as there are learners in the class.

None of us is born with critical thinking skills – critical thinking skills need to be intentionally taught and developed over time. We do not enter the world able to solve problems and gain insight. As far as problem solving skills are concerned, we are born as blank slates. In fact, the thinking slate is non-existent, and has to be nurtured and developed. Apart from nourishing it, a prerequisite for the thinking slate to develop to the optimum is a secure environment where bonding with others takes place and relationships flourish, because thinking means taking risks in the unknown and having the courage to express oneself.

Not being familiar with the various critical thinking modes and the tools to apply them is the number one reason why learners find it difficult and frustrating to think. Without critical thinking skills, it is virtually impossible to find solutions to challenges, and that is when learners feel driven to take short cuts to find ready-made answers. Without access to critical thinking tools or strategies one is guaranteed not to have the ability to find solutions in constructive ways. In this way critical thinking modes are essential meta-thinking scaffolds.

A contribution of mine (co-author) in a book currently in print: Developing Critical Thinking.

Your view?