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Learning to Ask the Questions

posted: 4.1.11 by archived

Shopping at the mall with my daughter this week, I shuffled from rack to rack, fingering material and trying to look like I was enjoying myself. I stopped in front of a rack of pastel, short-sleeved shirts in a linen-like material. The sales price was a mere $5.99, which prompted me to look at the label at the back neckline: Made in Indonesia. I checked a half-dozen other racks and found India, China, Vietnam. Is it ethical to buy clothing without regard to where it is manufactured?, I asked myself. I wondered what percentage of clothing from this retailer was manufactured overseas, when this started, how this has impacted local economic conditions, and what remedies, if any, have been proposed.

I want my students to start asking questions like that—real questions that they need research to answer.

I think about such questions each time research-paper time rolls around: how can I stimulate students’ sense of curiosity? If they had that first spark of a question they cared about, I could help them to refine it, to find credible information, to formulate a position, or at least to clarify the competing claims. But once we move beyond the personal essay, they settle so easily on the same tired topics of abortion, death penalty, or the drinking age. They want to spool out the argument they’ve already heard, read, and written, laced with a few facts plucked from short articles they found from a Google search.  Instead, I want students to start with questions they hadn’t considered before, something new and quirky they hadn’t noticed or some long-held assumption they want to challenge.

So I try to shake up their sense of what to write about. Their first research project this semester was a short tour through the steps of the research process, a collaborative project prompted by an image and the questions it evokes (the assignment is modeled on the Annotations section of Harper’s magazine). To save time, I selected images, including an advertisement for the Disney town of Celebration, a Web page showing the model of a coffin offered on Walmart.com, and an image of a stuffed seal-robot designed to provide therapy and companionship for the elderly.

For their major research project at the end of the semester, I want students to come up with their own questions. I want them to notice images and ideas as they surf the Web or flip through magazines. I want them to identify the public issues that touch their personal lives: the credit card companies’ targeting of young people that gets them into financial trouble, the effects on a family when immigrant parents cannot speak English, how it will affect the children when a town switches from half-day to full-day kindergarten. I want them to wonder about the causes and effects of the changes in their communities and to imagine solutions to the problems they see in their families, schools, and workplaces.

So I try to model curiosity. As I drove to work, I tell them, I noticed the signs for local political candidates on my neighbors’ lawns and wondered how well this form of campaigning works, what regulations govern their display, whether mere familiarity with a name leads to votes, what percent of voters participate in local elections.

What do you do to foster in your students a sense of curiosity, inquiry, and wonder? Please offer some suggestions!

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Research
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