What should be my (our) guiding questions?


I believe that guiding questions are important. As our world changes radically and rapidly, we may not have answers (yet) but we can at least try to ask the right questions. Here are some guiding questions that I’ve been bouncing around for my own work with educators, schools, communities, and policymakers [note that they’re often very different from the questions that most educational reformers, legislators, and the public are asking right now]:

  1. What can we do to increase the cognitive complexity of students’ day-to-day work so that they are more often doing deeper thinking and learning work?
  2. What can we do to better incorporate digital technologies into students’ deeper thinking and learning work in ways that are authentic, relevant, meaningful, and powerful?
  3. What can we do to give students more agency and ownership of what they learn, when they learn, how they learn, and how they show what they’ve learned?
  4. What can we do to better recognize and assess when students’ deeper thinking and learning work is (or isn’t) occurring? [ADDED at suggestion of Lynne Schrum]
  5. What can we do to build the internal capacity of both individual educators and school systems to be better learners and faster change agents?
  6. As we move toward more cognitively-complex, technology-suffused learning environments, how do we bring educators, board members, parents, communities, policymakers, and higher education along with us?
  7. As we move toward more cognitively-complex, technology-suffused learning environments, how do we ensure that traditionally-underserved student and family populations aren’t further disadvantaged?
  8. As we move toward more cognitively-complex, technology-suffused learning environments, what individual and societal mindsets – and local, state, and federal policy supports and/or barriers – need reconsideration?
  9. How do we balance competing (often unproductive) demands from other fronts so that we can do this important work? [NEW]

What do you think? Am I (are we) asking the right questions? What questions should be changed/added?

Got answers to any of these?!  🙂

Image credit: sensitive noise / obvious 2

29 Responses to “What should be my (our) guiding questions?”

  1. I think your questions are excellent. My only additions would be, “How do we provide opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes when they make things or do projects, so that they develop persistence and resilience.” And, “How do we ensure that students leave school with empathy towards others, respect for others, and able to collaborate?”

  2. Thanks for the stimulating post. These are interesting and important questions for sure. It seems to me these are all focusing on facets of a larger question about the system that underpins them all. Something like this:

    How can we bring together everything we have discovered about cognition, learning, motivation, and modern technologies to design a more effective educational system than the one we have inherited from centuries past? How can we design the new system so that it adapts to the ever-evolving context around it (so we don’t have to design it again in fifty years, for example)?

    We are working on answers to some of these questions at our company, Native Brain. Where answers are not available, we are working on tools for formulating the questions so we can investigate them scientifically.

  3. Great list of guiding questions, Scott! My question for you now is whether or not you’ll feel comfortable with solid answers that don’t require technology use.

    It seems to me that questions A, C, and D can be answered quite well – even in our technologically rich society – without relying on technology’s power to save the day.

  4. My first choice is 3, followed by 1, 2, and 6. If we don’t help students take ownership as learners, how will they ever become self-directed life-long learners? How will they survive when they don’t have the scaffolding they need to succeed–especially those learners who are already disadvantaged.

  5. Your questions urge deep thinking, dreaming, and reflecting: all of which is needed in education today. I might add or expand by asking, “What can we do to create global citizens who take responsibility for connecting to and caring for their world?”

  6. All excellent questions, although I really like choice C. We really do need to involve students more in both the creation of their own knowledge as well as the assessment of what they’ve learned.

    Possibly due to my need to keep things simple, I wonder if several of your questions couldn’t be summarized as “What can we do to improve the learning of both our students and our colleagues?”

  7. Hi Scott,
    I like the direction of your questions – they challenge us (collectively) to be conscious of and rethink our “logic of practice.”

    For B) I don’t like the focus on technology. I love Ira Socol’s Toolbelt and TEST theories http://speedchange.blogspot.ca/2011/01/toolbelt-theory-test-and-rti.html – the ideas that we focus on teaching all kids to identify the problem/need/task at hand, what’s needed to tackle it, what’s available to us, and pick a strategy/tool. That may involve digital or technology – or it might not. The key is to know the options and choose the right one. That’s the skill we all need – not a focus on technology and/or digital.

    And what’s missing entirely, in my opinion, is the most fundamental question about learning – how are we raising students’ (and teachers’/parents’) self awareness and building a positive sense of self as a learner? If we don’t address the most basic need to BELIEVE that one is capable of being a successful learner, none of the other things matter. You’ll never get to complex thinking or deep learning. Period.

    If we want to measure the success of our school systems or our ability as parents, this is the data we need to collect! Some SPED programs in my District use the Piers-Harris Children’s Self Concept Scale before and after intervention to help measure the success of their program – BRILLIANT!! Measure what matters!

    If any one of us BELIEVES we can be successful, we will have an attitude that embraces learning, determination, persistence, creativity, openess, curiousity, willingness to ask for help, etc… And ultimately, that’s what leads to our success!

    Not whether we know how to use technology. Or understand curriculum. Or ultimately, whether we “understand” anything (if it’s an intellectual understanding that isn’t connected to our emotions and beliefs about ourselves or the world).

    Thanks for your post!

    • I agree with Heidi…
      The MOST important question is “Do I believe that THIS student is capable of learning?” Nothing else much matters…and for kids with disabilities, too many educators do not believe. The tyranny of low expectations must change.

  8. One observation about your questions, Scott: They all seem to be about *process*. Have you thought about coming up with a guiding question that frames the desired *outcomes*?

    For example: How can we leverage learning science and technology to deliver twice the learning impact of the current system at half the cost?

    Starting with a set of outcomes like this, you can then bring in the issues of cognitive complexity and citizenship in the way you define “learning impact,” and the questions about technology and stakeholder development (teacher professional development, parent education, etc.) become are framed in a way that (in my experience) supports more productive dialogue. Instead of getting into arguments over questions like B above in which people take sides on whether we need digital technology or not in an absolute sense, for example, we can subtly shift that question to ask “Can technology help us deliver twice the learning impact at half the cost of the current system? If so, how?”

  9. About some of the questions above: 1. The more one knows about a field of knowledge, the more inherently complex it becomes. It’s a mistaken emphasis to seek complexity for itself when such a quality attaches naturally to a competence with a body of knowledge. 3. Students gain agency and ownership of knowledge when they can demonstrate and explain it to fellow students who admire the effort. We achieve this if we teach them how to practice explaining their material incrementally and comprehensively to each other and then have stand-up performances of what they learn. Nothing enhances ownership like peer applause. 4. Both students and teachers need to grasp the truth that skill development is in direct proportion to practice. At all levels, people become better learners as they explain what they know. 5. If we could imagine knowledge broken into bits of points-of-new-knowledge, and if students mastered just five of these per hour, twenty-five per class day, in a year they master 4500 of them. The key is instructional design that continues to save all prior learning. Nothing impresses policy-makers better than actual student mastery, and anything short of that is just smoke and mirrors. 6. Just use the ideas above with all students. And the final question added: We should be focusing reform on overlooked micro-elements, currently ignored or misused, that if changed could bring about rapid progress—such as “practice makes perfect.” If anyone is interested in more on these themes, I’m glad to email to them the proof copies of my 3-volume Practice Makes Permanent series being issue by Rowman and Littlefield. Send an email address to jjensen@gci.net. Best regards, John Jensen, Ph.D.

  10. Scott,
    Great thinking around these questions. I would add one additional twist to C. What can we do to give students more agency and ownership of what they learn, when they learn, how they learn, and how they show what they’ve learned?

    Should it not read students AND educators more agency… top-down PD doesn’t fit the need anymore for educators either.

  11. Very useful and successfully kept at a high level.

    Point “F” worries me. Are we happy with merely not making things worse?

    Replacing the last three words with a phrase to focus on working to actively address disparity would add value, imo.

    Will use these ideas in my work, thanks.

  12. Excellent list of questions, each packing with lots of coverage. One gap I perceive, and I may be missing it in my reading, is the link between a “cognitively-complex and technology-suffused learning environment and the expectations of family, community and society. There are still too many who reject all of these notions of retooled classrooms, favoring a back to the comforts of the past approach.

    More specifically, what is the narrative around how technology- and information-rich learning experiences co-directed by learners, apply themselves tp the unique challenges of maintaining a prosperous and democratic society in a time of rapid change, and how do we harness the actions and productions of these learning environments to share that narrative with our communities?

    • I second David’s comment. Until the majority of folks (how many times did you hear that word yesterday evening, thank you Mr. Biden) view our educational system broken, it will roll along essentially in the same path. This however will not be indefinite, as the majority become the minority, and vice-versa, the new majority who are at most effected negatively by the current system will prevail in changing the status quo by the sheer numbers alone. How long will it it take? 20 years? 30 years? It would be nice if we could get to that point before then though.

  13. Do I truly enjoy my work?
    Can I grow?
    Am I able to monitor my students’ engagement and take action when I notice a student is not engaged?

  14. I think that you need a few more points Scott: How do we assess students learning? How do we evaluate the effectiveness of different instructional techniques in increasing student learning?

    We’re like the man looking for his keys under the streetlight not because that’s where he dropped them, but because that’s where he can see. Authentic evaluation is time consuming (which means expensive), and usually subjective. Those factors make it a hard sell to include as part of reform or as part of standards. People who make policy decisions don’t like to acknowledge that real learning is “messy”

  15. A major problem with assessing learning is that we give “credit” for learning obviously marginal, half-baked, temporary, crammed, etc. Things would change overnight if the system decided that the only worthy criterion is learning that is maintained and permanent, that a student can produce at any time. We obtain this by teaching and testing for long-term retention–which might mean that all learning for the past year or two remains open for testing, and that all tests are unscheduled and impromptu. This would spur teacher to teach and students to learn for the long-term instead of constant learn-and-discard. For anyone interested in more about this approach, send me an email address (to jjensen@gci.net) and I will email the proofs of my 3-volume Practice Makes Permanent series being issued by Rowman and Littlefield.

  16. Good GQs. What principles should drive such GQs?

  17. I don’t know if this is a principle or a standard or a method but it constitutes a possible transformative line in the sand: use this as your criterion for “knowing something”–a student can explain it back anytime without help and maintain it. With that as your standard, you can ignore all the approximate knowledge that leads up to it, knowing that just verifying the criterion above establishes your standard within genuine instead of specious knowledge. I think it would clean up a great many puzzles people now struggle with.

  18. Your Question 3.5, on assessment, raises an interesting innovation already sponsored by the likes of Kellogg, MacArthur and Ford: online, multimedia, high school ePortfolios that incorporate “soft skills” – as defined by SCANS almost two decades ago. The attached link is their in-school powerpoint, and their – somewhat stilted – presentation to Harvard’s Beekman Center is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRb3342Y9oE&feature=youtu.be.

    In other words, to get good, timely, and useful assessments, ask students to assess themselves – but use metrics that exist out-of-school. That assures both “relevance” and “utility” are key, as well as puts high academic on the same plane with pre-vocational skills.

  19. What can we do to ensure we teach our students in the way they want to learn, rather than in the way we prefer to teach?

  20. Not sure if there is time for ya’ll to read (skim?) my lesson plan for the ENG 101 class I teach, but everything that’s being said here is smack tab at the heart of what I’m trying to encourage.


  21. Marcus— After 20 years of working with classroom methods, I had an epiphany in 1992 as I watched my son play soccer with his friends. What was it that turned these indifferent students into enthusiastic players who pushed themselves to the limit? I realized that it was the conditions, not anything about the students themselves. The motivational conditions were different in the classroom and on the playfield. From that starting point, I explored the difference between them, and how to design classroom methods that expressed the qualities I observed in soccer: practice to improve skills, teamwork, clear direction and affirmation for effort, clear signals of progress and success, performance before peers, and so on. I realized that while “practice makes perfect,” what school people in general do not grasp is that you “practice” learning by explaining it, that all students need vastly more of this, peer to peer, than they ever get. You absorb an interior model of the knowledge—just like for any skill—and then you express it outwardly, you demonstrate it, just like for any skill. Teachers who use these methods find students galvanized with energy, learning their knowledge deeply, claiming it as their own, and readily improving the social/emotional atmosphere among them.
    For anyone interested, (and with apologies for repeating myself–cf. above) I can email them the proofs of the three volumes of my Practice Makes Permanent series that explains this viewpoint in detail (with no obligation). Send an email address to jjensen@gci.net and let me know your interest.

  22. Hi my name is Rafael i wish to forward to you as well as your dear readers a paper i wrote,on my own initiative ” educational model for the 21 century ” ehich I believe covers most questions asked here.( about 22 folio pages , including executive summary, presentation and the paper itself )
    may i add one more question :”more of the same slightly different = WHAT ?
    isn`t it what we keep doing in our education ?

  23. Question 3 is the primary issue. IMO a BYOD policy with people (quit calling them students) allowed to build their own personal learning system from the ICT and social media tools of their choice is the best way to authentically empower a sense of ownership and agency.

  24. UPDATE: Lynne Schrum has persuaded me that I need an additional question (which would go right after C): What can we do to better recognize and assess when students’ deeper thinking and learning work is (or isn’t) occurring?

    Why do we need to recognize and assess this? I teach teachers now & no longer work in a classroom with kiddos. Some adult learners are more motivated than others. They create their own learning. I tell them, “You can learn as much or as little as you want. But I am going to give you the bare minimum that you will need to be successful in my PD. I will provide you links and white papers so can can dig as deeply as you wish,” on your own time! If I needed to assess this, I would ask learners to reflect on their learning. Instead, I ask them to describe their process and present their product (evidence) to an audience of colleagues, fellow educators and future educators. I assure you, they will raise their own bars on their learning! I won’t need to assess their work! Their peers and they, themselves, will more rigorously evaluate than I would!

  25. Why does not the point made for teachers’ learning apply to students’ learning? “Describe their process and present their product (evidence) to an audience of colleagues.” With students, there is probably no motive stronger for them than the prospect of presenting their learning to peers, which can incorporate all learning in all subjects. Clarify what questions they can answer (i.e. processes, patterns, perspectives, whatever), and daily draw randomly from all past work for someone to pop to their feet and demonstrate. It gives a much more intuitively accurate sense of what students actually know and maintain than do paper-and-pencil ways of demonstrating their learning–which they readily discard. They don’t discard competence that draws peer admiration.

  26. @John Jensen: well said, “Clarify what questions they can answer (i.e. processes, patterns, perspectives, whatever), and daily draw randomly from all past work for someone to pop to their feet and demonstrate. It gives a much more intuitively accurate sense of what students actually know and maintain than do paper-and-pencil ways of demonstrating their learning–which they readily discard. They don’t discard competence that draws peer admiration.”

  27. E – is my favorite.

    Although, G – how do we ensure that traditionally-underserved student and family populations is the one that has gotten me into the most interesting conversations lately.

    Basically, IF we think we have to get laptops/broadband into high poverty areas, we agree to WAIT for someone else to solve the problem, BUT – IF we ask ourselves, “What do I have control over” in the educational process, there are some things we can do right now.

    Here is a brief synopsis of my thinking…

Leave a Reply to John Patten