It's a sun drenched Wednesday morning and fifteen freshman and twelve sophomore high school students sit as one large group in a circle. They have assembled for Fundamental Questions class, a biweekly hour and half session intended for large and small group inquiry. The day's question is 'What are we distracting ourselves from?' It's a question generated by a student and a question that most in the group have agreed is worth investigating. A week earlier the junior and senior high school students assembled for their Fundamental Questions class in the same room. Their question was 'Can a person understand what another person is going through?' This question came from a different process with the students but was similarly ranked as worthy of discussion.
The Fundamental Questions class is new this year to Oak Grove. The intention is to create another forum for the high school students to explore deeper questions in a supportive environment that encourages their own thinking to come forward, be shared and examined. There is no pre-determined content to cover, no knowledge to acquire. The content and the direction the discussion takes are largely up to the students and emerge in the process of actively relating. The teachers act primarily as facilitators (there are at least two, typically three); they organize the class and help frame the discussion. With the suspension of curriculum-driven interactions, and the presence of substantive
questions, there is a possibility of true equality between student and student, and student and teacher.
The first meeting of the Fundamental Questions class was dedicated to introducing the importance of group inquiry and asking basic questions. We asked, 'Why are we bothering to do this?' This question would re-emerge as the semester progressed with greater degrees of urgency on the part of different students. In some ways it is a core question, one that may take a year for some to appreciate. We talked about the nature of fundamental questions and their importance in life. Examples of fundamental questions were: What is freedom? What is justice?How do we know anything? What is love? What is right livelihood?
It was pointed out that many fundamental questions have been answered for them in some form or another by various authorities such as parents, peers, politicians, and marketers. For example, the answer to the question 'What is a good life?' is broadcast day in and day out on television and in other media. Having the most 'cool' stuff, having the right body, and a glamorous career are recurring themes. We also considered the student's daily experience at school and how it is profoundly influenced by the way people here and elsewhere have answered the question 'What is education?' We suggested that maybe the answers to this and other fundamental questions were sensible, but then again maybe they weren't. Was it intelligent, we asked, to assume that the answers provided for us were correct?
In the Fundamental Questions class we came face to face with some important educational conditioning. School has taught many students to be passive consumers of the curriculum. The typical learning process is entirely set up for them. Even when given options and choices they are basically told what to do, what material to cover, what metric to conform to and what the 'right answer' is. The students come to depend upon and conform to a comfortable routine that they recognize as 'learning'. The exception to this is the 'creative' assignment or project. These important activities allow for more
individual initiative, but tend to emphasize self-expression above and beyond self inquiry. In the Fundamental Questions class, perhaps for the first time in their career, these students came face to face with the dependent nature of their learning. When the teachers are not running the show some students found themselves uneasy with the increased responsibility and asked, 'How can we learn anything?' 'Aren't we wasting our time?'
At the beginning, many students felt that they were not capable of answering or really investigating these questions. Students suspected that there were 'right' answers that were somehow embedded in the questions and that they didn't have the background or knowledge to discover them. They sometimes felt adrift because they weren't sure what steps to take to please or placate the teacher. They also wanted to stay in their comfort zone, to regain their role of recipients of the known.
They rightly intuited that they were entering unknown territory, unknown to themselves and to their teachers. This was made explicit in one group discussion. Students admitted to feeling that they were 'nothing in the larger picture of things' and 'had never experienced major life events.' In response to these kinds of feelings we looked at what it meant to be human and it was suggested that we were no different from people everywhere on 16 earth. Someone brought up fear. Fear was a human universal and if we were to learn about fear wouldn't we learn something about all people everywhere?
The Source of the Questions
It's the freshman and sophomore's third session together and we've just concluded a large group discussion. The students are sufficiently warmed up and are asked to write down any questions they have about what matters to them or things they wonder about. The overall list of questions generated by the students was substantial. Examples included:
How can someone know how the mind works?
Why are we categorized?
How does the brain work?
What is society?
What is the difference between happiness and what society says is happiness?
Why is it almost forced on us to be successful?
What is the point of being here if we just consume and copulate?
One student captured something of her mental process of coming up with a question when she wrote: 'Why do we need to write a question?' She then continued-'Why can't I think of a question?' Finally she asked 'Why are some people so mean and some so sensitive?'
Teachers as Facilitators
As facilitators of these sessions, the teachers were encouraged to be aware of ways in which they might shut down the student's thinking. Before the launch of these sessions, the teachers discussed the importance of allowing for the expression of diverse opinions and for creating a more transparent environment where the student's (and educator's) conditioning could emerge. We discussed the fact that a fine balance existed between allowing for free expression and letting the discussion bog down in gratuitous diversions (sometimes called 'bird-walks'). For example, during the discussion on 'What are we distracting ourselves from?' a few students were entertaining each other. They came up with the theory that extra terrestrial beings were the reason why people are so unfocused. The facilitator's comment was that perhaps talking about terrestrial beings was itself an attempt to distract the group.
From the point of view of the facilitators, these discussions were held in a spirit of openness. Curiously, when the teachers were careful to keep things open, the students were likely to close things down. They were often quick to condemn and express dismay at the shortsightedness of this or that opinion. A hidden competitive atmosphere in the junior and senior group was revealed by one student's comment. When asked why some students were holding back and not speaking, one said; 'You have to choose your battles.' This comment was said to the accompaniment of much nodding of heads and other gestures of agreement. This came as somewhat of a shock to the teachers as we had set up the classes with very different intent, and on the surface at least there seemed to be a fair amount of cooperation.
In the subsequent session the facilitators opened the morning by sharing the perception that a certain amount of judgment and polarization had happened and reminded them that the intent of the discussions was fundamentally to learn. We went on to suggest that a large group like this was a microcosm of society and that we were experiencing the same basic psychological dynamic that leads to division between peoples and ultimately to war.
'This Makes My Brain Hurt!'
It's the last class before the end of the first term and a few students have expressed unease with the way the sessions have ended ambiguously, without resolution. In response the students have broken up into smaller groups in an attempt to come to some shared understanding around the day's topic: happiness. In one small group there is some disagreement around the nature of happiness and whether or not happiness is the same thing as pleasure. One student was wrestling with this, citing examples where clearly happiness was pleasure, then trying to think of an example of being happy that didn't involve pleasure. Another student chimed in; 'What is pleasure anyway?' The first student threw up her hands exclaiming 'This makes my brain hurt!'
The Fundamental Questions class is a place where students sometimes feel uncomfortable and typically express their discomfort as a direct result of having to think for themselves. On top of this they are asked to do this within a group of their peers that inevitably adds a challenging social dimension to the proceedings. In their struggle to express both their insights and their frustrations, these students have an opportunity to unearth their opinions and assumptions, and experience something of the important transition from psychological reaction to inquiry. Granted it is early days. Up to this point, much of what has been expressed is still reaction. Yet this very lack of competence in group inquiry illustrates the need for a learning activity of this nature.
From the teacher's perspective these sessions offer a rich and thoroughly challenging opportunity to learn about ourselves as educators and as human beings. Facilitation is an art, an art born of awareness. If during these discussions we are helping to make connections or probing with further questions, these contributions are the result of sustained listening. In order for our students to feel supported we must share with them the passion we feel for this level of inquiry. Words alone will not suffice and all our accumulated knowledge will do them little good. What we must sustain is what Krishnamurti called 'the flame of discontent'. The urgency of that intent brings about understanding.
Looking forward, the inquiry process that is beginning to occur in these classes is also beginning to be integrated with other areas of the curriculum. On several occasions students brought up subjects they were studying, such as Buddhism, ancient Greek philosophy and even mathematics. Questions that have more direct links to existing content areas are natural places to bring the inquiry process back into the more conventional academic sphere. Inviting other teachers to participate in these classes also provides the opportunity for them to learn more about facilitation and to listen and communicate with their students in a more open-. ended context.
Paul Herder is the Director of Teacher Development at Oak Grove School in Ojai, California. His career in education spans twenty years and includes teaching, curriculum development, administration, educational consulting and teacher training. Before joining Oak Grove School, he worked as a teacher trainer bringing inquirybased, student centred educational programmes to struggling schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.