Questions Without Answers

Post date: Feb 23, 2015 11:30:14 PM

Not answering questions is one of my favorite parts of my job. Seriously. My second year of teaching I even made a video for the school news about it. I once had a student raise her hand, wait for me to walk over, start to ask her question and stop mid-sentence. I encouraged her to continue but she noted I would "probably just ask [her] more questions anyway." (She was right.)

Providing students with questions that don't have an answer is a ton of fun and everyone should try it a time or two (or every day.)

Today we did an assignment full of unanswered questions: West Dossiers.

It, at one point, led to this exchange between a student and I:

"What if it's not good or bad Mr. Roughton?"

"Beats me."

"Can it be neutral?"

"Sure, why not?"

In my "dossiers" activities students are given a bunch of one-page info sheets on historical figures. These are simple, bullet lists culled from their textbook and other internet sources. This activity isn't about sourcing but instead about interpretation, categorization and judgment. In this one in particular my students read about 6 western figures/groups that were involved with vigilantes. I wanted them to see that even the "good" guys in the old west were not actually that good.

For each of the six dossiers they had to tally how many good things and bad things each did (thus leading to the above exchange.) I never said that every action had to be defined. Most figured out after awhile that many of the actions could not be easily defined if at all. Things like "Doc Holiday was known to shoot his dueling opponents in the hand to avoid killing them" led to some very interesting discussions among the students. Sure, it was nice that he was not killing them but why was he shooting guns at anyone to begin with?

After evaluating all six of the characters the groups had to rank them from most heroic to most villainous. This also led to some interesting discussions and wildly varying answers from group to group. Some recognized that a few very good things could outweigh a lot of little bad things, in the case of someone like Bat Masterson, but others went strictly on tallies and ended up calling Tiburcio Vasquez the most heroic despite him being one of only two of the group that was never a lawman.

Listening to kids debate the tiny nuance of questions like this is one of my favorite things I get to do. I love when they miss a little detail that I can throw in just when they think they've finally reached a valid conclusion. This is the kind of moral debate I want my kids having all the time. I want them to test everything around them. By providing them with questions without answers I give them the freedom, if not the requirement, to think and judge for themselves.

Content-wise, and even Common Core-wise, I can accept that this lesson didn't do much. Sure they got a bit better of an understanding of the lawlessness of the west and sure they had to cite evidence in their final conclusions but none of that was the point.

And that's fine.

We shouldn't be tricked into thinking every single lesson we do has to be designed to meet goals x, y, and z when goal q is a darn good one. Making kids think is a darn good one.

So, make those questions without answers and leave your kids to play with them for awhile. You will love what happens.