Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Unanswerable Questions


"If nothing else, school teaches that there is an answer to every question; only in the real world do young people discover that many aspects of life are uncertain, mysterious, and even unknowable."
- Michael Crichton, from the Intro in his last book Micro*

One of my favorite things I used to make time for when I taught 2nd grade was the question box- an old shoebox with the words "Question Box" slapped on with sentence strip paper and a pile of pencils and pieces of scrap paper next to it (I know...fancy stuff).  I seem to remember coming up with this idea as a way for students to practice writing questions with proper punctuation at the end, but it turned into so much more.

Students could write and contribute questions to the box anytime they had a free moment.  It turned into one of the most popular things to do as kids stuffed question after question into this little box.  Every time we had a free couple of moments (usually at the end of the day when we were packed up and ready to go) I'd pop open the box and answer as many questions as I could (using the only computer in the classroom)...

"How old is Mr. Johnson?"  (27ish...at the time...)
"What is the biggest planet?"  (Jupiter)
"How much does the Statue of Liberty weigh?"  (about 225 tons or around 56 elephants)

I'd say these kinds of questions made up about half of what we tackled.  But then there was the other half....the FAR more interesting half with questions like...
"How many stars are in the universe?"
"Where does God live?  Why doesn't he fall through the clouds?"

and my all-time favorite question I'll never forget from a little girl named Frances:
"Does a fly have a soul?"

These kinds of questions were my absolute favorite- we would sit together, a bunch of 7-yr-olds and I, philosophizing about questions that some of the greatest minds in the history of the world have no answer for!  And let me tell you, if you give even 2nd graders a chance to openly ask and think about questions like these, you will be completely floored at just how intelligent and articulate these little folks can be!

So I guess the message here is- be open to the unanswerable questions, no matter who you teach.  Even better- actively make time for them.  I fear that the last 12 years of standardized testing push has made our classrooms and students more focused on the "right" answers than ever.  Push back against this idea, don't be afraid to tell your students that not only do YOU not know the answer to a question but NO ONE does....and that's ok.

Keep that sense of wonder alive!


*Unfortunately, this is the only interesting part of this book- it's the first book I've scrapped reading in a long time- I do not recommend!