Asking the Questions

Remember the wise parent who asked his child each day not “What did you learn today?” but “What questions did you ask today?”

Remember the wise parent who asked his child each day not “What did you learn today?” but “What questions did you ask today?”

Much of the education process entails the asking of questions and the giving of answers. As teachers, sometimes we can judge our success by the answers that we receive from students. The testing regimes we serve can reinforce this emphasis.

However, it’s not the answers we require, but rather it's the questions we encourage, that can often make education most transformative and liberating.

Inspirational educator Parker Palmer suggests that there are several types of questions that we can ask in our hope that education is truly liberating.

The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question – what subjects shall we teach?

When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question – what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question – for what purposes and to what ends do we teach?

Our Charter helps us out with this one!

We aim to form young people who can critique their reality and undertake the production of meaning themselves, first by becoming questioners of the world they live in and then, by becoming co-creators of their own versions of the world. We want them to question and critique our world, not simply inhabit it.

The questions we lead our young people to ask should challenge versions of the world that define success solely in terms of money, accumulation of things and over-emphasis on status and security. Our aim is to equip young people to critique our culture and its version of the good, the well lived, the important and the meaningful life.

We teach more than subjects. The key questions relate to life and how to live with dignity, respect and honour. We hope our students learn through experience and construct their reality based on their experiences. We want our students to have independence of mind and an openness to engage in problem-solving.

We hope they reflect on the world to understand it; make their way in it confidently, and sometimes just simply to be in awe of life’s mystery and grandeur. We hope to free our young people from the tyranny of unexamined opinions and assumptions, shallow solutions and inherited prejudices. We hope our young people are liberated from boundaries rather than defined by them.

But Parker Palmer goes further to suggest that seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question – who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form – or deform – the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world?

Our lives are very complex. It often appears to me to be a miracle that teachers can so regularly overcome the turmoil in their own lives and family situations in order to be ‘on song’ in the classroom. I learned a long time ago to have patience with colleagues, since we never know what they have had to deal with before they even get to the workplace. I hope they would have this patience with me!

Our schools place real importance on formation, prayer and reflection for staff as well as students. For me it continues to be a great privilege to have these opportunities in the workplace. There are many people in other fields of work who never have these possibilities of reflection and spiritual enrichment. Let us all commit to using these opportunities as best we can in order to engage with the ‘who’ questions.

Humanity is so important in education. There is no liberating education without shared humanity. Most young people won’t identify with us in the role of RE, English or Science teacher, but they can and will identify with and be touched by wholesome, spiritual, searching, integrated human beings. Perfect no, but authentically human, absolutely. Friends, our human condition gives us one huge concession: we don’t have to be perfect, just the best we can!

I have a collection of little stories that inspire me. Most have been with me for years. I’m sure you probably have some as well. Writing this letter I was looking back over this one and thought I would share it with you. I think it fits. Enjoy Rose’s answers to the questions life posed to her.

The first day of College our professor introduced himself and challenged us to get to know someone we didn't already know.

I stood up to look around when a gentle hand touched my shoulder. I turned around to find a wrinkled, little old lady beaming up at me with a smile that lit up her entire being.

She said, "Hi handsome. My name is Rose. I'm eighty-seven years old. Can I give you a hug?"

I laughed and enthusiastically responded, "Of course you may!" and she gave me a giant squeeze.

"Why are you in college at such a young, innocent age?" I asked. She jokingly replied, "I'm here to meet a rich husband, get married, have a couple of children, and then retire and travel."

"No seriously," I asked. I was curious what may have motivated her to be taking on this challenge at her age.

"I always dreamed of having a college education and now I'm getting one!" she told me.

We became instant friends. Every day for the next three months we would leave class together and talk nonstop.

At the end of the semester we invited Rose to speak at our football banquet. I'll never forget what she taught us. She was introduced and stepped up to the podium. As she began to deliver her prepared speech, she dropped her three by five cards on the floor.

Frustrated and a little embarrassed she leaned into the microphone and simply said "I'm sorry I'm so jittery. I gave up beer for Lent and this whiskey is killing me! I'll never get my speech back in order so let me just tell you what I know." As we laughed she cleared her throat and began:

"We do not stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing. There are only four secrets to staying young, being happy and achieving success.

You have to laugh and find humour every day.

You've got to have a dream. When you lose your dreams, you die.

We have so many people walking around who are dead and don't even know it!

There is a huge difference between growing older and growing up. If you are nineteen years old and lie in bed for one full year and don't do one productive thing, you will turn twenty years old. If I am eighty-seven years old and stay in bed for a year and never do anything I will turn eighty-eight. Anybody can grow older. That doesn't take any talent or ability.

The idea is to grow up by always finding the opportunity in change.

Have no regrets. The elderly usually don't have regrets for what we did, but rather for things we did not do. The only people who fear death are those with regrets."

At the year’s end Rose finished the College degree she had begun all those years ago. One week after graduation Rose died peacefully in her sleep.

Over two thousand college students attended her funeral in tribute to the wonderful woman who taught by example that it's never too late to be all you can possibly be.

My warmest regards and gratitude for all you do for Edmund Rice education and the future of our young people.