If you teach in an inner-city school, you’ve probably heard this a million times: “Teach them how they can help themselves. This is the best way to help them succeed.” Not quite.
The most important thing that teachers can do to improve race relations in America is to simply stop telling students that they can’t ask questions.
A few weeks ago, a white student at an all-black high school in Georgia wrote an article in the school newspaper calling for an end to white privilege. The article was widely shared on social media after being picked up by the “Huffington Post”, but it didn’t take long before the school’s principal, the local NAACP, and the student’s own parents were publicly denouncing his ideas. Today, however, the student has come out saying he was pressured to commit suicide—and the blame lies with his school and the principal for failing to “let his curiosity” take over.
Curiosity is often the beginning of learning. When we are curious, we start asking questions. Our questions lead us to research, and our research leads us to our goal. Sometimes the direction leads us to a solid conclusion that satisfies our curiosity by answering our initial (or re-emerging) questions. But sometimes the goal we reach only raises more questions for us. Some people may wonder why some people can afford large, expensive homes and others cannot. After investigating, they discover that some people have more money and others do not. But this orientation is not convincing enough to satisfy curiosity.
The next logical question is why or how this happened. Causal research can lead someone into different areas, such as education and its link to income inequality and privilege; the link between privilege, where someone lives, and where they go to school. The discovery of these concepts will lead to new questions and new research. All this in the hope of achieving a result that will put us on the road to progress for the good of the people. That’s what learning is all about: Curiosity to ask questions, exploration to seek answers, and inference to open the door to greater understanding, which can lead to more curiosity and more questions.
The best teachers not only meet students where they are, but also stimulate their curiosity by having them ask questions about their world and the world around them, developing skills of inquiry and study. It is important for teachers to improve their practice by evaluating how they cultivate inquiry in the classroom. This is especially important because teachers often determine the course of learning by the questions they ask children and the questions they elicit from children after they have given their instructions. This is particularly important because the difference between a lesson that critically examines systemic racism in the context of its content and a lesson that presents students with facts, people, places, theories, and explanations depends on how the inquiry is used in the classroom.
In light of the racial unrest in our country, there may be white teachers who want to teach in a culturally sensitive and relevant way; teachers who want to teach the history of how systematic racism shapes our society. To do so, however, they must acknowledge the consequences of the overwhelming presence of whiteness in their pedagogy and teaching. This means asking yourself the following questions: In what directions do I lead students with my teaching and cultivated research? Do I feel comfortable leading them into a space where they critically examine the relationship between a white supremacist social order and the conditions of their communities? Can I explain how we got here as a company and where I stand in this relationship? These are certainly difficult questions for any educator.
However, it is impossible to empower students by using the skills and competencies they have developed to address systemic injustice if students are not exposed to the truth through instruction and focused inquiry. Teachers should not be afraid to ask students difficult questions to make them think. Teachers should not be afraid of what they might learn. Teachers should not be afraid of the kinds of questions their students ask. Fear is the enemy of truth, and our society is a post-truth society because many people are afraid of the truth, because truth changes the intellectual and moral trajectory of human beings. When we know the truth about our nation and the remnants of its sins, we can no longer ignore the harm done to black and indigenous peoples; we can no longer live in the old way. Teachers, especially white teachers, need to be brave; brave enough to ask the right questions.
Asking the right questions means that the pedagogy must be one that believes that inquiry is an important means of stimulating student learning and that inquiry must be grounded in student knowledge and experience. All new knowledge builds on the foundation of previous knowledge. Any skill or competency that students are taught must build on what they already know to be successful. To teach systemic racism and thus develop students’ skills in a particular area, pedagogy must focus on examining students’ experiences of systemic racism as they encounter it in school, in communities, and beyond.
Teaching and learning should encourage students to make connections between systemic racism, acquired knowledge, transferable skills, and their experiences in order to empower them to make a difference in their community and to believe that they can. Education is not an attempt to simply gather information that is never used. Education is not an attempt to gather information to later share and enhance one’s ego. Education is an attempt to free the bodies and minds of the oppressed. Education is asking questions to get answers that meet people’s needs. This means that teachers should use research to get students to think critically about the conditions in their society and community.
For example, third grade science lessons, which explain that trees give off oxygen, should encourage research into why some places have lots of green space and others do not. Math lessons on ratios in seventh grade can lead to cross-curricular work with social studies teachers wondering why politicians draw congressional districts. It’s not rocket science. You just have to ask the right questions. The original version of this article was posted on the website 7. District of Philadelphia published.Students are curious.
They want to learn about the world around them and be educated about the issues they care about. Yet our education system often steers students away from these opportunities, preferring to funnel them into lessons about protecting the environment, or teaching them how to use historical documents to analyze them, or even (horrors!) teaching them how to write.. Read more about importance of curiosity in research and let us know what you think.