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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Encouraging Students to Question

By Peter DeWitt — January 02, 2013 5 min read
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“Who are you, question mark?
I often ask myself questions.
In your festive garb
You look like a judge
You are the happiest of punctuation marks
At least you get answers.

Patricia Duncker. Hallucinating Foucault

We have all seen those moments when a video captures a student speaking up about something. When all the adults present, sit back in awe of a student or students who want to tell their side of the story. It happens sometimes at conferences when there is a student spotlight. A group of students nervously, or perhaps not, stand up in front of a group of educators to present on a topic.

Most educators likely remember the 2008 opening day speech given by 10 year old Dalton Sherman in a Dallas, Texas Stadium. He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. He actually had most of the viewers of the video eating out of the palm of his hand as well. It was inspiring.

Fortunately these are inspired moments that the audience can see but they know they’re coming; meaning that they are part of the program. An adult gave permission or helped in the process. What about those times when students want to speak up and it’s unplanned? Educators want students to speak up when they see a friend or peer having an issue with another student. We give them brave names like “upstanders.” What if they notice something wrong in the classroom? Are we as open to hear what they are saying?

When there are budget cuts, which result in loss of programs, educators want their students and parents to stand up and scream. We want the full support of the community to show how important education is to them. We don’t mind “crazy” when a parent is standing outside the school asking parents to vote “YES” on a budget.

Are teachers and administrators as supportive in that discourse when it comes to issues within their own classrooms or schools? Are they as open to debate when it comes to homework or too much death by ditto? If teachers give an unfair or imbalanced test to students are those students allowed to speak up about it? What if a student’s grade isn’t as good as they believe it should be? Do teachers encourage the input by the student in question or more importantly, by the parent as well? Or are they the master of their domain and they don’t take input?

Teaching Tempered Radicals
“Did the teachers promote questions and critiques or obedience and conformity?”(Finn. p.207).

If we want students to speak up in a fight for education, we should teach them, allow them, and encourage them to questions their surroundings in schools. Students who question the status quo can help make the educational system better. They are the ones who create GSA’s in their school or plan events that will make the community around them better. When students who question grow up they are the ones who can make their own workplaces better. We often find debates in social studies classes but they should not be the only places that debates spark.

Teachers rarely explained why work was being assigned or how it was connected to other assignments. Work was often evaluated in terms of whether the steps were followed rather than whether it was right or wrong. For example, one teacher led the students through a series of steps to draw a one-inch grid on their paper without telling them what they were making or what it was for. When a girl realized what they were making and said she had a faster way to do it, the teacher answered, “No you don’t. You don’t even know what we’re making yet. Do it this way or it’s wrong” (Finn. 2009. p.10).

Many students are taught to conform to the rules of the class which often do not include debating a teacher-driven decision. This is one of the key missing ingredients in the school climate discussion. Educators should be encouraging children at a young age to question their surroundings. When they stop questioning, they stop learning.

School leaders should also have supports in place that allow students to discuss a given rule. Teachers and principals should encourage students to set up a meeting with principals so they can discuss why they do not believe a rule is fair (i.e. Every child has to take chorus, etc.). In my own position, there have been times that students signed a petition to get me to address a larger issue within the school like doing a fundraiser or a special event. It is done respectfully and without malice. It becomes a teachable moment.

These conversations and debates become a great way to engage the principal into the classroom and another way to build a relationship between the principal and students. If we want our students to stand up for their own education, that practice needs to begin in the classroom and in the school.

Teachers Should Speak Out Too
I practice what I preach. As a school principal, I encourage my teachers to speak out about high stakes testing and other reforms that have harmful effects on schools. It is my hope that teachers who are encouraged to speak up in school allow their students to do so as well. Many of us in education believe we are fighting for our academic freedom. We do not want all students to learn the same information in the same way at the same time.

This is not a production line where we are manufacturing the Model T. It is not just up to large union or academic organizations to take the lead for us in that debate; it is up to individual voices to participate in that debate as well. Teachers and administrators should work collectively on this issue. We should all question why things are the way they are. We should question why the U.S. Education System spends more than 1.7 billion dollars on high stakes testing and ask why that money doesn’t go to something better like before/after-school programs or resources for schools that need it most.

Too often, adults and children sit passively as others make decisions for them which has lead us to this place we presently find ourselves. However, in great school climates, teachers and students are allowed to speak up. They are taught how to do so and encouraged to question their surroundings. Education is messy sometimes and that is the excitement in it. Those situations will help foster better student engagement which creates a better school climate.

Action Steps
• Encourage students to self-advocate.
• Have 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classes write persuasive letters to the principal on an important topic. The principal should talk with the students about the topic after the letters are written.
• Engage in formal class debates. I have seen this done at the 4th grade level. Students do a fantastic job shaping their opinions and getting ready for the argument.
• Teach students that debating is not always about being right. It’s about listening to both sides of an argument and coming to an informed opinion.

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Finn, P. J. (1999). Literacy with an attitude: Educating working-class children in their
own self-interest. Albany: State University of New York Press.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.