Gen Ed Torah is a blog series by Rabbi Lee Buckman, in which he reviews current literature in education and applies it to the world of Jewish education.

The Educator Is the Midwife to the Birth of Questions

by | Apr 1, 2019 | Blog, Gen Ed Torah | 0 comments

As is well known, the Passover seder was constructed in such a way to arouse curiosity.  We pour wine for the diners even before they ask.  We recite the blessing over wine four times even though at a Shabbat meal or on other festivals “borei pri hagafen” is typically recited only once.  We are instructed to recline even though customarily we tell our children to “sit up straight at the table.”  The bread we eat isn’t the sweet, soft challah that we are used to at a Shabbat meal.  Many families distribute candies before the main course even though conventional wisdom suggests that it will spoil a child’s appetite.

All of these moves are meant to arouse curiosity and encourage children to ask questions.  It is true that the ability to ask a question, to challenge and debate, is a sign of freedom; and hence questions are appropriate for the holiday that celebrates our freedom.

However, more fundamentally, creating the curiosity to create meaning is what gives the seder leader the platform to re-tell the story of our people.  For, without an audience hungry to listen, we will find it next to impossible to do anything but serve dinner as quickly as possible.

The importance of curiosity in learning cannot be understated.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the role of the educator is to be the midwife to the birth of a question.  How do we as teachers engineer learning with curiosity in mind?  How do we construct our lessons so that our students are hungry to learn?  How do we become midwives to the birth of questions when we teach?

The October 8, 2018 issue of the Marshall Memo (Issue 756) features a summary of Bryan Goodwin’s recent book Out of Curiosity, which breaks down the key elements of an environment that arouses students’ curiosity.

Below are seven conditions and seven curiosity principles that encourage this critically important life skill.  Some will sound familiar from the seder and others are good suggestions to incorporate into a seder (or classroom).

Seven Learning Conditions

Incongruities – Encountering something that runs counter to our expectations (for example, that winds blowing from mountaintops into valleys can sometimes be warm) naturally sparks curiosity.

Controversy – Researchers have found that getting students involved in a pro-and-con debate on an intriguing topic produces engagement, motivation, and curiosity.

Someone knows something we don’t – This might be called the “I have a secret” dynamic, which often leads to questions and exploration.

Different-lens questions – Students are asked to look at a subject from a different perspective – for example, considering a science question from an ethical standpoint.

Mash-up questions – Students consider two seemingly unrelated ideas or apply what they’ve just learned in a completely novel context.

Manageable knowledge gaps – Incomplete sequences, unfinished sentences, cliffhangers, riddles, and puzzles naturally spark curiosity.

Guessing and receiving feedback – Being corrected on an inaccurate guess is especially helpful (assuming a low-stakes environment in which mistakes are okay).

Seven “Curiosity Principles”

Embrace not knowing. “Curiosity involves an element of risk taking,” he says. “We must delve into an area we know little about or where we feel incompetent. And we’re more likely to do that when we feel safe to admit we don’t know something. Thus, we need to help our kids see that it’s OK to profess ignorance, yet a shame to profess indifference.”

Ask fewer, deeper questions. Peppering students with questions is quite common in classrooms, but many of them are at a low level of cognition and ask students to do little more than recall what’s been covered. A smaller number of questions focused on higher-level thinking will spark more thought and curiosity. Goodwin suggests applying this principle to the time-honored question when a child gets home from school: What did you learn in school today? Some alternatives: What surprised you today? When did you feel joyful today? What are you wondering about now?

Replace undirected with directed questions. Posing questions to the whole class often results in a few eager beavers raising their hands and 80 percent of students sitting passively while the familiar back-and-forth plays out. Better to cold-call specific students or use “numbered heads together:” the teacher poses a question, groups of four students consider a response, the teacher then calls on individuals by their number in a group.

Use questions to provoke thought versus seeking correct answers. Many students avoid answering teachers’ questions for fear of making a mistake and being embarrassed; quizzing students on what they’re supposed to have learned can trigger these emotions. Better to pose open-ended questions and create a climate in which students feel safe making mistakes and develop courage, confidence, and curiosity.

Use wait time. When teachers pause for three or four seconds after posing a question, the length and quality of responses increases and students are more likely to ask questions of their own.

Let students follow their curiosity. What one person finds interesting, another may not, so students need latitude to explore and find the areas that pique their curiosity and passion. “[C]uriosity is more likely to flourish,” says Goodwin, “when kids are free to pursue their own interests alongside supportive adults who offer well-timed nudges to guide their explorations and keep their curiosity alive.”

Go play outdoors. Recent research suggests that the best “medicine” for bored, incurious, video-game-obsessed kids is a dose of sunshine, fresh air, and unstructured play.

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Rabbi Lee Buckman

Rabbi Lee Buckman

Rabbi Lee Buckman lives and works in Jerusalem. He is the Executive Director of JEDvision, which provides educational services, consulting, and executive coaching to Jewish organizations and institutions globally. Prior to making aliyah, he served as Head of School at three institutions: TanenbaumCHAT, the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, and the Frankel Jewish Academy. Lee has been a Lookstein Center contributor for more than 10 years. He can be reached at lee@jedvision.com.

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