25 ways to make yourself unpopular: #11 Ask questions

It’s a very sad thing, I think, but one thing I have discovered is that if you ask questions, or at least the wrong type of questions, that’s a sure-fire way of attracting opprobrium. A strong word to use, perhaps, but there is little doubt in my mind that daring to question the current conventional wisdom is indeed often regarded as shameful, and usually indicative of not having fully understood the situation.

Photo by Lee http://www.rgbstock.com/user/melodi2For example, a lot of people think that one device per child is a good thing to aim for. It certainly sounds admirable, especially in the context of wanting to reduce the digital divide. But when it comes to making purchasing decisions in a school, is it the most sensible or desirable target to aim for? The questions I would ask here are:

  • Do students learn better when they have their own own device, or when they are “forced” to share and collaborate?
  • Surely the answer to that question is, “It depends”? If the work in question would be better achieved by individual research, then one device per child – or, more accurately, one connection to the web per child – might well be the better solution.
  • But even if sometimes each pupil needs a device to use on their own, does that mean that the school needs to buy enough devices for each pupil ? If you had, say, 10 devices per class, then at any one time you should be able to amalgamate two or three class sets, giving you one device per child. As long as not all classes will need one device per child at the same time, which is unlikely, why couldn’t that arrangement work?

The important thing here, though, is not the detail of whether that particular example would work. If you think it would be unfeasible or undesirable, that’s fine. My point, though, is both broader and deeper than that: it is that leaders of ICT should always be questioning “good ideas”, and that it is often the very act of questioning that will get them into trouble.

Other questions you might consider asking include:

  • Is games-based learning an unequivocally good thing?
  • Does games-based learning have to be video-based or even computer-based?
  • Is open source software cost-free?
  • Are traditional forms of assessment (such as multiple choice, essays) always inappropriate for ICT?
  • Should we always base decisions on what the students think they want?

In my opinion, the answers to these questions are not as important as the act and the process of questioning themselves. If education is about anything, it is surely about encouraging young people to take nothing for granted, and to continually be asking questions. I think it’s sad that, in education of all professions, asking questions such as these, thereby acting as role models for students, is as likely to earn you contempt as admiration. Ideally, of course, it should result in neither contempt nor admiration, but a potentially fruitful professional discussion.

None of this is new, of course. The story of the Emperor's New Clothes, and Kahlil Gibran’s The Wise King,  are both about the potential consequences of seeing things how they are instead of how they ought to be, to borrow from Ambrose Bierce's definition of a cynic. I think the upshot is that there are occasions when the ICT leader has to make a choice between doing what’s popular, and doing what’s right. In my view, questioning is an essential part of that decision-taking process.