How Do You Activate a Student’s Mind?

There is a number you call to activate a credit card.  There is usually some highly confusing route in order to activate an online account, full of questions about my favorite flavor of milk or who my mother’s great-aunt’s husband punched in the nose.  But despite frequently checking the bottom of my student’s feet, and looking under their eyelids and behind their ears, I have struggled to figure out how to get middle and high school students activated.  How do you get these kids to think?

Thinking can be difficult to define.  But we must pursue something akin to a definition of it if we are to break free from the misguided, inaccurate, and reductive definitions that have brought to where we are educationally in our day.  If we wish to see a revival of thoughtful citizens in our land, we must educate in that direction.

And I don’t think what passes for thinking in terms of critical thinking, or problem solving, or the like is not what we used to mean by wisdom.  Good thinking produces good living.  The modern, who refuses to admit of such verities as “goodness” and prefers to opine about what is efficient, or pragmatic, or the like, cannot move toward what he does not think exists.  Many today want simply to produce a great worker, one who can solve problems for his employer or provide great responses to the chairperson’s board room exercises in creatively seeking to sell more widgets.

But good thinking comes from a pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.  It is disheartening to hear many of my high school students wonder aloud at this assertion.  “Seek truth, goodness, and beauty?  Why?  I can buy such things on iTunes, or find an app for it, or simply create my own truth, goodness and beauty whenever I wish.”  And that, of course, is very poor thinking.

So how does one’s teaching move beyond simple information and indoctrination to truly bringing a student’s mind into active thought?  Well, as an example, look again at the question just posed.  Then consider the question, and notice that your mind becomes engaged.  Questions engage the mind like nothing else I have met.

A group of students recently inadvertently compared two classes at my school, one being my own.  Prior to my class they were in a course (which I am keeping anonymous in case the teacher reads my blog!) that at least that day had been long.  It was the same fifty minutes as mine, but the students felt the two classes were of noticeably differing length.

The first long one had been characterized by the teacher talking a great deal about the subject matter.  They had a text they were considering, but the teacher was in a mode of telling what the text was about.  In their minds, the class did little more than give them material they would be tested on soon.

In my class (and please, this is not exalting my pedagogy I hope, because I can serve up a boring class with the best of them) on that particular day we had been considering a piece of literature that was very difficult for them.  It was a translation into English, it was from a time long ago, and it had lots of phrases and constructs they were totally lost in because it had begun its life as an oral poem.  Because I have taught this many times before, I could easily have simply filled in all the blanks and moved on.

But I was in the questioning mode, and I believe it is why the class seemed much shorter than the previous one.  They came out of the classroom, were transported to a land and time foreign but exciting to them, and watched as a mighty warrior rode a monster’s back till in terror the monster tore off his arm seeking to escape Beowulf, the warrior.  Why did this happen?  Is terror that powerful?  Have you heard about the wolf caught in trap who chewed off three legs and was still caught in the trap (Sorry, poor humor is a main stay of my classroom)?  Very little of the class was more than my asking questions upon questions and the student’s arguing with each other over the answers.

And this is not a discipline specific pedagogy.  Questions can activate any student in any subject.  One Spanish teacher took the notion of immersion a step further and instead of banal “conversation” in Spanish (Where is the bathroom?  Is there chicken on the menu?  etc.) she started asking them questions and making them respond to her questions.  The amount of thought required shot up.  Same in Physics, for sure.  As David Hicks, and many others have suggested, “Don’t ever teach a student what they can teach themselves.”  Questions activate the student’s mind like nothing else I know.  It can be messy, it can be hard to plan, but nothing makes for shorter classes.  And “Teach” often learns something too.

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