To Get Students Invested, Involve Them in Decisions Big and Small

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By Matt Levinson

When asked why he became a scientist, Nobel Laureate Isidor Rabi attributed his success to his mother. Every day, she would ask him the same question about his school day: “Did you ask a good question today?”

“Asking good questions – made me become a scientist!” Rabi said.

Questions are critical, and how to manage and navigate a good question requires practice. “Coming up with the right question involves vigorously thinking through the problem, investigating it from various angles, turning closed questions into open-ended ones and prioritizing which are the most important questions to get at the heart of the matter,” say authors Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana in their book, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.

The hardest part about using design thinking in class is getting the question right and staying in the question. Educators regularly notice how challenging it is for students to stay in the question.  Student conversation can veer off track and the students can lose focus. It takes discipline for students to learn how to dig deep with focus on a design question.


For teachers, in designing learning experiences for students that are embedded with technology, the wording and focus of the question are paramount.  The question needs to be deeper than simply "Should or shouldn't we use the iPad with this project." The question needs to be open ended, elastic and invite multiple interpretations. Learning outcomes based on the question need to be defined and articulated,  and experiences to achieve those outcomes need to be created with student engagement in mind. Engagement alone is not enough. But engagement matched with outcomes around a carefully worded question propels student learning.

[RELATED: For Students, Why the Question is More Important Than The Answer]

“I’ve seen students with iPads and the novelty is there and the engagement is there, but it’s not clear that novelty and engagement will lead to increased academic achievement,” writes Stanford Education professor Larry Cuban In The LA Times.

Blogger Mark Gleeson puzzles over the conundrum in "iPurpose before iPad," urging schools to avoid viewing apps as “one trick ponies” and with an “action/activity emphasis.”  Instead, he calls on schools to ask if iPads fuel learning with “depth and skill development.”


One big challenge can be how to frame curriculum design using the technology so that it moves beyond novelty and engagement into deep learning.  This takes time, patience, and observation.

Bjorn Jefferey, Co-Founder of Toca Boca, writes in a blog post for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center:  "Play with them, talk to them, observe them. What do they need to develop? Start there. Then—once you know that—you can start thinking about ways to do this. Perhaps all your kids really need is to develop a certain skill a little more, or perhaps to dive deeper into an interest that they have."

Beyond observation, teachers can invite students into the conversation around the design of the learning experience.  In that conversation, students will gravitate toward modes of engagement and often, but not always, this engagement will include and involve technology. It can be amazing and illuminating, once this door is opened, to see and hear the myriad ways that students understand learning and engagement. What's more, this conversation can serve as the bridge for the teacher less versed in tech tools, but well versed in learning outcomes and design questions.

For example, in one class recently, as students were creating recipes for a good life, one student suggested the teacher use the app Show Me could be useful as a way to explain the recipe and to share with other classmates. The student had used the app in a different class and shared the knowledge in his humanities class. The teacher listened to the student and was open to using the app.

These “small” moments pop up every day in a classroom where technology is present.  The key for teachers is to be open to the moment and opportunity when students see where it can be used and add value.  Partnership with students and collaborative inquiry are critical to schools seeking to further understand the role technology plays in deepening learning.

And, as Isidor Rabi noted, lifelong learning begins with a good question.

Matt Levinson is the Head of the Upper Division at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, Calif. and the author of From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey.