Provoke me if you want me to learn

Typically, teachers ask most questions in a classroom: about two every minutes. The quality of answers to these can only be so good, given the time for answers can be measured in seconds. What if students asked more questions of their own, and we gave them time to answer them? Might they be more invested in their inquiries, more keen to reveal an answer to a gap they have found for themselves?

How do you get students to ask more questions of their own?

In education systems around the world, the use of the “Essential Question” as a starting point is widespread. But not all essential questions really feel essential to the students having to answer them. Some don’t even feel essential as a basis for understanding the world around us.

If all we do is ask another, big question of our students, where is the space and invitation for them to ask their own questions?

How do you get students to ask more questions of their own? Asking them one isn’t the right way. After all, how do you feel if you ask a question and get a question in response. In politics, it’s called avoiding the question…

Cliffhanger Learning

Television series writers are experts in getting their (otherwise passive) viewers to ask questions. It’s called the cliffhanger. Television drama’s whole point is to bring you through either a traumatic starting point or a slow building up of tension, followed by a complex development, to a point where there are two or three potential dénouements before, “Cut!”, it is the end of the episode and you will have to await the “right answer” in the following week’s show.

This moment has even gained a moniker in British homes, based on the theme tune to the real masters of the four-times-a-week cliffhanger, London-based soap opera Eastenders. It’s call a “ba…ba…ba…ba, ba, ba-ba-ba-ba”:

Eastenders writers are such masters of writing in the perfect pace of this cliffhanger, that every 28 minute episode, all 5276 of them, four times a week, ends with a tantalising screen freeze on the latest shocked face / smirking baddy / confused victim. For really big stories the cliffhanger can last significantly longer while other more minor dénouements meet us every 28 minutes: it took 14 months to work out who killed Lucy Beale, a character of little importance to plot until then, and 9 million of us kept going the whole time, trying to work out the answer.

Now, most classrooms, happily, do not involve murder, incest, dodgy deals or clear and present danger, but “good teaching” encourages a type of pacing that totally ignores the ingredients that have millions in the edges of their seats every day: the good old cliffhanger. In fact, we see teachers giving away the punchline of learning at the beginning: “Today we are learning this:…”

But just because we tell kids “we are learning” does not mean they will learn it. Maybe we could learn something from the creative world, from the ingredients of good drama, and see how it matches to research on what makes good learning:

Provocation to develop ideas

Edward de Bono’s work takes precisely five pages to talk about the importance of provocation to help the learner learn deeply about an issue or concept and the related tangents. He uses a tool — Po — as a way to prepare the listener for what is to come — it’s going to be a provocative moment! De Bono uses provocation to help develop fresh ideas. For example, “what if Governments gave everyone a free car?”. It’s a provocative idea, and not realistic, but from it we can develop elements of new ideas: insurance-free, no more thefts, safer vehicles, car loans… and we end up arriving at modern city car-shares for all. Innovative, and all from a provocation.

We use provocations, too, when we get teams dealing with a problem to as “what would x do?”, where x is replaced by a brand, company or organisation whose way of doing things might offer some insight. More on that, maybe, in another post, but you can see how participants in a workshop travel around the room, below, getting inspiration from how Spotify would meet their challenge one minute, or how Google might solve it from another. These are indeed provocations: they are met with cynical laughs (how would RyanAir solve the problem of parental engagement?) and hearty smiles (maybe Spotify would design a fascinating online platform for learning, based around curated playlists, and what my friends are learning right now…)

Provocative ways into a topic

If provocation can help develop ideas, it can also help find good problems to solve. In my team’s experience, the intrigue of a good provocation at the start of a project provides enough of an “after-burner” effect of interest to get into learning new concepts and ideas, unknown unknowns, or things the student didn’t even know they didn’t know. We’ve seen, over time, that students tend to learn more, and faster, as a result. But it is an after-burner only. The fuel a provocation provides runs out, but has hopefully taken interest and motivation to an altitude that permits students to work through the inevitable troughs of some tough learning ahead.

Content can be used to create that initial provocation: a YouTube video that makes a point, or conflicting newspaper stories on the same topic, a visitor to the school, a short story.

New Zealand art educator Rob Ferguson tweeted about this provocative video:

It pushed his students into not just “doing art” for their 10th Grade assessments, but “doing art” to make a difference, as part of a global movement of artists:

This might seem simple, but at play is some good, deep thinking. The provocation, through the video clip, comes at the beginning of learning, along with many other resources and content sources in an immersion that will contradict, delight, frustrate and generate a discord.

Some Project-Based Learning plans work on this basis and reap huge rewards in terms of student motivations. Other types skip over the idea of provocation: the PBL project where the teacher creates the problem or open-ended ‘essential’ question, and students diligently piece together a fairly logical response.

Provocations feel like a more real-world scenario: conflicting and provocative opinions on several related (or apparently unrelated) subjects creating confusion and discord. And it’s these wicked problems, steeped in provocations, that we need more people to understand — the planet’s future depends on it.

The discord is what sets students off to “problem-find” for themselves, seeking the genuine core of the many problems and many potentially ‘essential’ questions being presented. Having synthesised down to their own problem, or “how might we” statement, students will set out to ideate and prototype their solutions to the problem, or their way of showing off what they have learned. Often the ingredients used in the provocation will reappear in the prototypes, of which the photo above is one example.

Simple on the surface, deep, complex, frustrating, confusing learning on the underbelly: that is what we mean by design thinking for learning.

Planning less content, more questions

In most classrooms, still, we see teachers planning the days before for one lesson at a time, and it is no wonder that learning feels chunked up to the point it is no longer recognisable in its original form. A lot of this is rooted in the expectations created when time is already pre-chunked into one hour, 50- or 45-minute blocks (my first school insisted on each lesson being 53 minutes long). We also tend to see time spent on planning content of lessons. What would happen if we spent just as long planning an initial provocation, and considering the questions that might come from students around that? When we see teachers doing this, their students cover a broader range of curriculum with their own prior knowledge shared, than the teacher would have managed trying to ‘fill them up’ on his or her own content.

This philosophical approach to learning is beautifully filled in by David Birch in his book, Provocations. It’s a superb starter to get teachers of any discipline shifting from content preparation on PowerPoint to question reflection in their notepad.

Making Learning Whole

Starting with a provocation, and letting students design the questions they want to answer, begins to create what David Perkins calls “Making Learning Whole”. Making learning whole means that we think of learning like a long, 12 or 16 part drama, and build our story on that long line rather than the minutiae of each lesson. Then, in terms of the detail, we write in the 2 minute catchups from the last episode, the beginnings and, crucially, the structured cliffhangers to retain interest until the next lesson / episode. If you’re planning one lesson at a time instead of thinking about the long line of learning this is impossible to achieve.

Dave Stacey left a comment about the idea of moving beyond ‘the lesson’ on an earlier version of this blog, saying that

“Learning Objectives are a classic example where a piece of research gets mangled by a system which wants to be able to tick it off a list.”

It’s not just students who achieve better outcomes if they understand the context of what they’re doing. We all do. But at some point, defining an objective went from provocations, questions from students and discussion between them, to ‘tell them what they’re going to learn’. And lo and behold, the magic of defining the objective of learning was lost.

With a strong provocation serving as unforgettable long-term storyline, the student can then work on elements of learning which, out of context, would have little obvious point. With the context of the provocation and their own questions ringing in their ears, students are able to work through these dips and troughs of immersive, deep and complex learning, as they have a sense of the end in sight that they’ve created for themselves.

Nothing here is new. On an older version of this post, my mother described how she taught (very successfully) English literature to kids who really didn’t think they wanted to learn English literature:

“I think I taught the best subject in the world. Think of the joy of knowing that a new class was about to discover Hamlet, or Journey’s End, or — a story you (as a school kid) introduced me to — Through the Tunnel for themselves! The only advance planning was my own extensive knowledge of the text and my understanding of the pupils/group dynamic, and I used to look forward to finding out where we’d go with the text every time I taught it. My reward was being told later by pupils that I’d showed them “how” rather than just “what”.”

You can read more about the use of provocation to create innovation in your school in my latest book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen.

Originally published at on November 26, 2014.

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