I thought I would begin this post by sharing a few of my favorite riddles. I hope you enjoy:
- Only me
- Today and Tomorrow
- Your Name
- A coffin
The question in number 1, is, “On my way to St. Ives I saw a man with 7 wives. Each wife had 7 sacks. Each sack had 7 cats. Each cat had 7 kittens. Kitten, cats, sacks, wives. How many were going to St. Ives?”
The question in number 2 is, “There are four days which start with the letter ‘T’.
Two of them are “Tuesday, Thursday, what are the other two?”
The question in number 3 is, “What belongs to you but other people use it more than you?”
The question in number 4 is, “The man who invented it doesn’t want it. The man who bought it doesn’t need it. The man who needs it doesn’t know it. What is it?”
Most of us enjoy a good riddle now and then. Sometimes, no matter how hard we analyze it or how long we think about it, we still can’t figure out the answer and end up asking for a clue or giving up altogether and asking for the answer. It’s both maddening and somehow satisfying when we finally figure it out or are eventually given the solution. I know I’ve had that experience where the answer is so simple once I’m told, but even then, the revealing of the answer makes me smile and somehow feel victorious. But I am guessing you didn’t feel that same exhilarating rush of discovery when you read my riddles above.
You see, when we start out with the answer, the riddle loses its magic. We have still learned a fun, new riddle to tell others, but the fun of trying to solve it has been taken from us, rendering the whole process a bit stale and uninteresting. We do this all the time as teachers, though. Conventional wisdom and many of our teacher education programs actually promote the idea that we have to first “Teach” content and then let students use it or manipulate it and apply the things we have given them through lecture or readings, etc. While there is a time and place for this, I think we tend to overuse this and, unintentionally, steal the wonder from our students.
I can explain how a plant grows, have students read about it in their textbooks, and watch a film about it, and my students may indeed learn about the science behind how a tiny seed can become a large plant. But I’m not sure how interested most of them would be throughout the course of the lesson. What if, instead, I set a tiny mustard seed out on the table next to a large mustard bush, and asked students where the mass of the large mustard plant came from? My guess is this puzzling question as an opener would generate much greater interest in the lesson. From this starting place, we can then guide students through the thinking practices necessary to answer the puzzling question. These thinking practices, in most cases, are actually far more valuable to the student in the long term than the actual knowledge or specific content being taught.
Stimulating curiosity and developing effective thinking practices in our students pays dividends across the board. Critical thinking skills and curiosity are transferrable traits that will help students succeed in all subjects and in the workplace later in life. Knowing how a seed can produce the mass we see in a full-grown plant may be interesting to some, but is probably information that few of us really need to lead successful lives or even successfully keep our garden alive.
We live in a day and age when the wealth of information that is accessible at the touch of a finger is both a blessing and a curse. I love the ability we have to get answers to our questions in seconds on the internet. But I also think we are losing a bit of the wonder in the world. When we spoon-feed students information, they have a tendency to get intellectually lazy. When we focus on lessons with information-heavy, pre-determined outcomes, it shouldn’t surprise us if students lose interest or give the bare minimum effort it takes to regurgitate that information on a test. If, on the other hand, we build a practice of asking students big, open-ended questions that require them to ponder, analyze, ask their own questions, carry out investigations, interpret data, engage in constructive argument, etc. we begin to equip them for the challenges they encounter in life. And . . . I think we find our students much more curious and engaged. Our classrooms should not be stale repositories of knowledge, they should be incubators of wonder.
The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore attempt the impossible – and achieve it, generation after generation.
– Pearl S. Buck