Thursday, August 18, 2016

what's your big question?

Our minds are naturally inclined toward associative and interdisciplinary thinking.  We connect the dots in all sorts of ways, often when we don't fully comprehend the experience (and sometimes when there aren't even any dots).  

We have questions about the nature of the world: our experience of it, our place in it, our relationship to it, what lies beyond it, and everything else.  When we're young we ask questions all the time.  We are insatiably curious.  It's like somehow we intuitively understand that the more we learn the better we get at everything--including learning.  We don't worry about curricular units or standards.  We have no test anxiety.  We test ourselves all the time.  We love risk and we don't care if we fail.  It's always somebody else who's saying, "Hey, come down from there, you're going to get hurt!"* [*Often, they're right.  In any case they're probably more experienced in estimating the odds of that was fun didn't hurt vs. itchy leg cast for a month outcomes.  But sometimes you just KNOW you can do it and it's frustrating to be told you can't.  Pushing the edge is what learning is all about.** {**As a teacher/responsible adult I must explicitly remind you to do this (i.e., learn/push the edge/create new neural pathways in your brain that actually change your mind) in ways that will not break laws or harm any sentient beings-- most especially you-- or offend, irritate, annoy, upset, or anger your parents.***} <***If you think this is a lot of footnotes, or whatever we're calling the blogger's equivalent, you should read David Foster Wallace (especially Infinite Jest).  In fact, this is the perfect time for you to consider his commencement speech (which doesn't contain footnotes, but does contain the sort of wisdom that more people should hear while there's still time to do something about it.).  At any rate, if you're still following this sentence you'll do fine in this course.>}]  Not only do we love climbing learning limbs when we're young, we know it's what we're best at.  Most of us learn whole languages best between the ages of 5-12.  Our amazing brains manage the torrential inflow by creating schema

We have every incentive to accelerate and amplify our learning as we age.  Our future is increasingly complex and uncertain.  Our culture and economy favor those in the know.  Learning is increasingly your responsibility as individuals.  You're becoming more independent; in about a year you'll be heading off to college, where your professors may not know you exist and definitely won't care how you organize your binder.  As if all that isn't motivation enough for you to get your learning on, it turns out that not learning may actually be bad for you.  We form new neurons and connections in our brains when we learn.  Scientists are investigating whether the lack of new neuron formation is a cause for depression or an interfering factor in recovery.

When it comes to thinking for yourself in the traditional high school setting, though, there are constraints.  Inquiry that doesn't "fit" in the classroom is too often seen as insubordinate.   By definition, individualism and divergent thinking don't regress to the mean or conform to a one-size-fits-all syllabus.  We will have to find ways to gracefully lose arguments and compromise.  In addition, a culture of fear of punishment or embarrassment can lead the smartest and most successful learners to surrender and play the game.  When this happens, motivated learning in the presence of no opportunity dies the same death as a fire in the presence of no oxygen.  The authors of "The Creativity Crisis" say we ask about 100 questions a day as preschoolers-- and we quit asking altogether by middle school. 

In his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie describes visiting schools to show students how artists sculpt steel into animals:

“I always began with the same introduction: ‘Hi My name is Gordon MacKenzie and, among other things, I am an artist... How many of you are artists?’
The pattern of responses never failed.
First grade: En mass the children leapt from their chairs, arms waving wildly, eager hands trying to reach the ceiling.  Every child was an artist.
Second grade: About half the kids raised their hands, shoulder high, no higher.  The raised hands were still.
Third grade: At best, 10 kids out of 30 would raise a hand.  Tentatively.  Self-consciously. 
And so on up through the grades.  The higher the grade, the fewer children raised their hands.  By the time I reached sixth grade, no more than one or two did so and then only ever-so-slightly—guardedly—their eyes dancing from side to side uneasily, betraying a fear of being identified by the group as a ‘closet artist.’”  

Richard Saul Werman (the man who created the TED conference) said, "In school we’re rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question.”  School and the way it works was designed back when things were very different and oriented around mass production; that's not the way the world works any more.  You can't just prepare for a job that may not be around by the time you graduate.  And in the age of the search engine, there is no real point in learning facts for their own sake, especially since so many of them eventually turn out not to be facts after all.  You have to develop the critical thinking, problem-solving, oppurtunity-seeking, and collaborative skills that will enable you to CREATE a role for yourself in the new economy.  (And don't worry, if you're not an entrepreneur by nature, these abilities will help you do whatever else you want to do more effectively.)

So, our first mission is to reclaim the power of the question.  Everything you ask has an interdisciplinary answer.  Show me a cup of tea and I'll show you botany, ceramics, and the history of colonialism (for starters).  Wondering why your girlfriend doesn't love you any more?  Psychology, poetry, probability... you get the idea.  And no matter what the question or the answers, you're going to have to sort the signal from the noise and determine how best to share the sense you make.

What's your Big Question?  

What have you always wanted to know?  What are you thinking about now that you've been asked?  What answers would make a difference in your life, or in the community, or in the world?  What do you wish you could invent?  What problem do you want to solve?  This is not a trick and there are no limits.  Please comment to this post with your question and post it to your course blog (title: MY BIG QUESTION).  You can always change your question or ask another.  If you need some inspiration, check out this year's Eng 3 Big Questions here.


  1. My biggest question is, how can one individual person conquer so many things in life? Like many people say, "Life is short, so live life like there is no tomorrow", but think about it. How can one person be so capable of accomplishing so many things before it's their time? Are they obligated to maintain a certain mindset when growing up? Or is it because it's their destiny to be such an accomplishment person?

  2. I do think that as we get older, we sort of avoid taking risks, asking questions, and being curious and creative in general. We're so scared of being wrong or embarrassing ourselves that we prefer to keep our mouths shut in class and avoid asking questions. Like the post says, when we're younger, we don't care about being wrong; we just want to take risks. And as we get older, that want to take risks goes away. As we get older, we become more afraid of what our peers will think of us if we ask questions, raise our hands in class, etc., and this is shown in a section of Gordon MacKenzie's book, Orbiting The Giant Hairball. Nobody is willing to stand out or take risks anymore. Another thing this post talks about is school, and how it really doesn't... benefit us as much as it used to. Things were very different back in the day. I don't remember the exact statistic we talked about in class, but I think about 69% of third graders will have jobs when they graduate that don't currently exist. Regardless of whether or not I got the percentage right, the only way to prepare kids for tomorrow's jobs is to give them skills that our society seems to lack: critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, and collaborative skills. We don't learn that with our current school system; all we learn to do is take notes, because according to every teacher out there college sucks. But how will learning to take notes and being brain dead in class help us in the real world? In my opinion, we need to learn to take risks again and more importantly, to ASK QUESTIONS.

  3. My question is this; how would the world be affected if we learned to think more critically? How would it be affected if people didn't worry about being wrong, and instead just took risks?

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  5. How will the world be 20 years from now? How will it be changed with technology, new inventions, new ways of thinking, and new skills that kids will be taught later on?

  6. how do people know that you'll be successful in life and to know that you'll accomplish your goals and dreams ?

  7. My question is about the very existence of this universe. Everyone knows about the big bang theory. But what caused the big ka-boom? What triggered it? Did the Big Bang even occur? I want to know the very reason that is responsible for all the stars and galaxies and for us all to even be here. To make it simple, if the Big Bang Theory is true, what caused the Big Bang?

  8. So Gordon Mackenzie says that in school as the grades get higher, the hands of artists dwindle down. In school we don't get credit/praise for asking a good question only for the right answer. Since we are scared of giving the wrong answer we don't say anything (I think that's why most of us don't say anything when Dr.Preston asks us things...we are afraid there is a wrong answer). With Dr.Preston talking about our society not using critical thinking, I was trying to listen, to really listen to what my teachers and friends were saying today and think about it. So today in fifth period my chemistry teacher Ms.Devine said this: "school is a dictatorship, not a democracy*(*a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives), and I thought why?. Why does this teacher in particular think that our school system is a dictatorship? Why did it actually click in my mind, that it made sense? In sixth period my teacher Senora Castaneda said: "school has a system....bureaucracy*(*1.a system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives),do what I can't do this, you can't do that". Why doesn't anyone have a say?! We were talking about mayan religion and how the Spanish religion was forced upon the mayans. Then a student says " History is just that way. Just unfair." Even history books write how they want you to see it. The WINNERS write history(What's so alluring about winning, that it keeps coming up[now that's it been pointed out]in everyday conversations[what's the point of winning?, What does it mean to win?]? Is winning the text in a history book the same as winning an argument? "Argument is the search for truth" Turns out we don't even now the full truth abut our own history. WE ARE MISSING PIECES GUYS!!! ( I feel like I'm connecting dots here in my human brain [Are the dots there? Or am I trippin'?])So we don't have a right to our opinion, we don't know the full truth, and we are stuck under SOMEONE'S thumb all the time. So I think that my question is this: Do we really have our own beliefs, or say, or Opinion, or right's, or choice? Will we ever really get the truth, and how will we know when it's the truth?

  9. My question would be is at what period of time did we begin sterotyping ?

  10. My question is, what can we, as the next generation, do to fix this world? You often hear adults say "we're the future" or "it's up to us", but what do we do? They expect us to make the this nation or even the world a better place, but we need our elders to guide us. Our elders want us to fix the problems they made, so they want us to clean it up?

  11. My question is how can us humans live knowing that there is so much to explore in the world and that most people will never experience it? Earth is huge and there is so many cool things to be seen but most people will never get to experience those new places. Alot of people will never leave their continent they grew up on. I of course am one of those people so when I grow up, I will travel the most I can. Just a thought I had.

  12. My big question is why do we trust and take risks for people when we know the outcome isn't going to be so great? Is it because we have hope or care for them in our heart that much? Or maybe we just give them the benefit of the doubt... So sad how we live in a great extraordinary world were we can't trust People even those you've known for quiet sometime. Why do I believe in second chances whern others don't give chances? Do you believe in second chances?

  13. My big question is why are people so quick to judge others. You don't know what's going on in another person's life. You don't know what another person is going through. A person could be going to something terrible that day, and people just meeting that person would assume the person is rude or shy. Why can't people keep an open mind about what others might be going through?

  14. Hearing this post being read in class brought me to think of a Tedx Talks video I had seen about a year ago (go to my blog to see this video, it's worth the while!) In relation to that video and to what Gordon MacKenzie describes when visiting schools, I remembered an event that happened to me in fourth grade. One day, a guest speaker came into the class and had asked the exact same question as MacKenzie and Shaw (from TedTalk): " How many of you are artists?" And sure enough, not too many hands were waving in the air compared to first graders who would be asked this same question. Undoubtedly, it is accurate to say "The higher the grade, the fewer children raised their hands." When hearing about the authors of "The Creative Crisis" say we ask 100 questions a day as preschoolers and quit asking altogether by middle school, I was mind blown and thought that could not to be true. However, after further reasoning, I can see why this is factual. I can relate to being that kid who constantly was curious and asking innumerable questions, even if it was a stupid question. I did not care what others thought of me, but as the years progressed, I have become fearful of saying the incorrect answer. It has come to a point where we all have something to say, but the fear of being wrong and being self-conscious is holding us back from sharing our thoughts and feelings.
    Having said that, my big question is as follows: What happens when the world does not account for time?
    Check out my blog ( to see more on my big question!

  15. I guess I never wrote mine on here but my big question is about death. Is death like a domino effect, meaning does one death cause another than another? For example a girl's dad dies, then her grandpa, then her dad's uncle, then her sister's dog. Does one death cause all of that?