New question: How do you teach students to become problem designers?

With relatively limited access to information in the world of paper, we generally give (maybe spoon feed) students the problems they need to solve. We emphasize finding and memorizing answers. But now that the internet is replacing paper as the go-to media we need to balance our students’ skill sets from finding answers to asking the most interesting questions.

A seminal moment that jolted me to understand the value of teaching students to ask questions came when I had the chance to spend most of a day with Stephen Wolfram, who invented the computational search engine WolframAlpha, along with his brother, Conrad. He was showing me the remarkable capabilities of this “knowledge engine,” which can instantly produce answers (and very often all of the steps) to traditional assignments, such as how to balance a chemical equation or to solve a math problem (even word problems). By the end of the day, it was clear to me that his tool was disruptive to giving students traditional assignments. We would either have to block it to prevent students from finding answers (cheating) or we would have to use it creatively to reach higher levels of creative thinking (teach invention).

I asked Stephan, “What do you think is the most important skill for students to learn, given their access to a knowledge engine?” He immediately said, “The ability to ask good questions. Almost all of the answers to traditional school problems are on the internet—What is not on the internet are the questions.”

If I were interviewing a new teacher I would love to hear their answer to “What do you believe are the most important skills to teach your students? I would hope that a successful candidate would answer, “Teaching students how to ask the most interesting questions.”

Current question: How do you assess student work that is handed in to you?

New question: What are your expectations for students to self-assess their work and publish it for a wider audience?

Researcher John Hattie has pored over nearly 1,200 educational studies from around the world to identify the factors that most strongly contribute to student success. Of the 195 independent variables he has identified, self-assessment ranks third on his list.

We need graduates who are independent. Yet in our schools, too often we’re fostering a culture of dependency, where kids are waiting for teachers to tell them how well they are doing. In some cases, our system of assessment becomes a ceiling for higher-quality work. Many students will ask “What do I need to do to get an A?” The rubric for an A can stop students from creating their very best work.

Giving students the tools to self-assess their work helps them develop a sense of autonomy, and research suggests it can lead to deeper self-reflection.

The good news is, we now have more tools to help students self-assess. For example, after a student attempts to solve a math problem or balance an equation he or she could produce a screencast explaining the thinking behind the answer. So now you’re getting students to reflect on their work, instead of just providing the answers. What’s more, you could have students go to WolframAlpha, type in the equation, and then compare their work to the steps that WolframAlpha provides. They can reflect on how their own work compares and where they might have gone wrong. This provides deeper insight for both the student and the teacher, and you’re also helping students take ownership of the assessment process.

Current question: What is your contribution to our faculty?

New question: What is your global relationship?

Many schools have formed professional learning communities in which faculty members work together to improve instruction. Who can argue against the value of educators sharing best practices and how to help specific students? However, if all these conversations are limited to people you see every day, within the structure of a school, there is a very real danger that an echo chamber will develop that has serious limits to professional growth. There is even a danger of unknowingly perpetuating bad practice.

If you look at research on effective systems, it turns out that systems with some outside influence tend to become stronger over time. But many schools don’t really operate this way.

We need educators who value the ideas wherever they can be found. We need teachers who are willing to share their work and seek feedback from colleagues all over the world. For example, my colleague, Kathy Cassidy, first-grade teacher from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, seeks ideas from colleagues in Argentina, Italy, and many other countries. She shares student work with these global colleagues and is continuously gaining insights (see Kathy’s website).

Current question: How do you make sure students are on task?

New question: How do you give students an opportunity to contribute purposeful work to others?

This comes from Dan Pink and others who have written about purpose, and why it’s such a motivator for doing our best work. Educators know that all students aren’t motivated by grades; achieving a higher grade is an external reward (or punishment) given by someone else — the teacher. By adding a larger purpose to the design of student work, we may be able to have more students who are much more likely to become engaged and self-motivated.

For example, a friend of mine who teaches geometry in Istanbul had her students design the entire geometry curriculum for blind children. This requires a very deep understanding of geometry, because it’s challenging to understand physical concepts when you can’t visualize them.

My friend had her students visit with children who came to a center for the blind every Saturday, and over time, her students got to know these children well. When I talked to her students, it was clear that designing this curriculum gave them a deep sense of contribution or purpose. They went well beyond the required number of hours. When I asked them why they were spending so much time on the project, they said, “These kids need us. They expect us to come, as do their families. We have to do this work.”

Current question: How do you manage your classroom?

New question: How do you teach students to manage their own learning?

Traditional teacher evaluation systems often focus the evaluator’s observations on the teacher’s behavior. Much of this behavior is focused on creating students to become dependent upon their teacher. Many classrooms are set up to teach students “how to be taught.” What we need are teachers who can teach students to “learn how to learn”.

In a teacher-centric classroom, students are dependent on the teacher for direction. But compare that to a teacher who has taught her students to be self-directed and collaborative learners. Our society needs people who can figure out ideas from all over the world and manage their own work. This is a really important skill.

Learning how to learn

Notice that there are no interview questions that ask about the candidate’s technology skills. While an understanding of technology is essential, these questions revolve around the application of technology to fundamentally change the culture of the classroom.

Collectively, the questions move away from a classroom that is designed to “learn how to be taught” to one that highly values “learning how to learn.” In some ways, the teachers we need moving forward are the antitheses to the teacher skills we have been demanding. It will be difficult to avoid the tension that would naturally evolve between the two approaches to managing a classroom.

While disruption of the traditional classroom culture is inevitable, it would be impossible to simply flip a switch to the new one. We will need leaders who understand how to manage the transition.  Now is the time to rethink the added value of a teacher in the age of the internet and to redesign our hiring practices to match this new role.

About the Author:

Alan November is senior partner and founder of November Learning. Follow him @globalearner.