Psychologist Marty Seligman had a lizard, and it wouldn’t eat. He tried everything. He researched its diet and purchased just the right food. He’d imported bugs and went on forums and asked experts. He’d tried everything; the lizard was still wasting away.
Then one day, he left the lizard near his sandwich. The lizard didn’t eat it, of course. Why would his sandwich be any different?
But then Seligman accidentally moved his newspaper, so that it partially hid his sandwich. The lizard immediately began to hunt. It slinked up and pounced on the sandwich, and reveled in the spoils of its catch. The difference was covering the sandwich—or rather, the difference was letting the lizard discover the sandwich.
Seligman drew a lesson: there’s value in the hunt. When we do the work of discovery, we value the prize more highly and our work becomes more gratifying. That idea has powerful implications for classrooms.
If we spoon-feed facts to our students, we deprive them of the joy of discovery and deep learning. We might feel productive if we “cover” five math concepts every week, but if all we did was tell our students what to do and then give them practice worksheets… well, that’s why students dislike math, and why they never learn to think mathematically about their world.
Instead, if we allow students to construct their own understandings—if we enable them to hunt for the truth—they’ll learn more durably, and they’ll feel empowered to be lifelong learners. That’s kind of a big deal.
The Right Questions
You might have heard that there are no bad questions, and perhaps that’s true (although certainly debatable). However, there are a few questions that have the power to supercharge inquiry in your classroom. See how many of them you can use today, and watch as they act like a newspaper over a lizard’s sandwich — as they help your students engage in the quest for discovery.
- How could you…? How might we…? Open the doors of possibility by asking students to come up with their own pathways. For instance, if you have a scientific question you want to investigate, you could give students a pathway to follow to lead them to the correct conclusion. Or, you could ask students how they might develop a test to find the answer. As they discuss and debate, they’ll learn more about science and scientific thinking, and they’ll take more ownership of their learning!
- How else could you? But don’t stop there! Encourage creativity and critical thinking by asking for alternative pathways. If a student has explained how they might solve a math question, ask students to come up with different ways to reach the same answer. By exploring how the pathways connect, students gain a deeper understanding of mathematics. Or, if you’re reading a book and making a prediction about what might happen, see how many other plausible predictions you can make, and discuss which ones are more likely — and why!
- Why? Here it is: the granddaddy of them all. The more times you ask “why” in your classroom, the more students have to examine and articulate their reasoning. This encourages deeper and clearer cognition — and it can be used to extend just about every answer! In my classroom, I like to use a “Whisper and Why” strategy. I have students explain their answer to an elbow partner using a whisper voice, and I encourage them to use the word “because” to show that they’re answering the “why” as well as the “what.”
- What do YOU think? Students should do as much of the thinking as possible (and no more). When students ask you for an answer, shift the cognitive load by asking them what they think. Whoever is doing the thinking is doing the learning, so boost learning in your classroom by making it your reflex to ask students to do the intellectual work.
By subtly changing the questions you ask in your classroom, you can give your students the very same joy that a lizard feels when hunting for a sandwich. Enjoy!