Bargell: Begging the questions
I recall sitting in class, palms sweating, wondering if I would be the next victim of my contract professor’s interrogation, bracing myself for initiation into the Socratic method of teaching. Named for old Socrates himself, I was certain the technique merely was a masochistic way to weed out first-year law students. Being called on to articulate, in front of 60 of my peers, legal theories that I could barely read let alone defend, all the while being grilled by my professor in a series of open-ended questions ranked right up there with another snowstorm in May (really, May?). Although this professor showed a modicum of mercy by calling on students alphabetically, that day I was not ready for my “letter” to come up. Thankfully, there were only a few minutes until class ended, and I was sure I would skate this class so I could really impress everyone next time. No such luck. As I struggled with a barrage of questions on the “mailbox rule” – an examination of contract formation based on when an offer is deposited in – get this – an actual mailbox, I realized, then and there, that school was much less painful when I was first told the answers, and then merely asked to memorize and repeat, memorize and repeat.
When I sat through our first meeting on the International Baccalaureate program, and the inquiry method of teaching, I wondered what good this would do for our girls, then just in kindergarten and first grade. Wasn’t this the time to fill their little brains with all the facts and rules needed to be truly successful in the world? After all, if it was good enough for me in grade school, why isn’t it good enough for them? And, come on, did these teachers have any clue how many questions a kindergartner really can ask? But, I kept my opinions – mostly – to myself. For the last four years, I have watched as the teachers develop curriculum around the questions – not the answers – about topics ranging from life cycles to poetry, from history to natural disasters. Turns out, people much smarter than me already have examined the whys of asking “why,” and it’s not just to torture students. From Socrates to Dewey, many educators believe questioning is the key to critical thinking. Or, as W.B. Yeats more eloquently put it: “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”
Some of the best work advice I ever received was from my first boss, straight out of college. He explained my job was not to bother him for answers to endless questions. Not that the questions were not important. He expected I would first ask each question of myself, and then go figure out the answers. Easy, I thought smugly. But, that was only the beginning. I then needed to think about everything he was going to ask about the project, and go figure out those answers too. Only after I ran out of either questions, or answers, could I go ask him what to do next. Not so easy, but it was clear he understood there is wisdom waiting to be discovered in every question.
I relearn this lesson periodically. After graduating from law school I spent my first year working for a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court. Early in the year the judge called me into his chambers – almost as scary as it sounds – to discuss a particularly thorny case. Eager to impress, I had dutifully read the briefs on all sides of the case. When asked what I thought, I began to cleverly repeat the information provided. Stopping me mid-sentence (leaving me fearful I was not as clever as imagined), the judge explained I was not hired merely to restate the briefed information. Instead, he wondered what I actually thought would be a fair outcome under the circumstances – and, more importantly, why I thought so. Then and there, I recognized my good fortune in having teachers and bosses through the years who have encouraged the questions, not just the answers. I am pleased too that our kids are encouraged to air the questions that rattle around in their little brains, and I do hope their teachers keep on asking – even if it means sweaty palms.
Cindy Bargell lives outside of Silverthorne with her husband and two daughters. She is a card-carrying PTSA member, lawyer and part-time gymnastics coach. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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