After the exclamation point, the question mark has been by far the most necessary punctuation in my years in the classroom. I’ve used it to gauge prior knowledge, engage students in inquiry and assess learning at the end of a lesson. I’ve written them on the board, in margins and on exams, and listened to them from students, parents and community members. On paper and hanging in the air, questions in the classroom, by both teachers and students, are an important tool in the learning process. They have also been integral to my time as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching fellowship, as I investigate best practices here in vocational education. One thing I’m realizing, however, is that the way that I use questions in research needs to differ from those in the classroom in one critical way; I can’t have an expected outcome.
Questions in the classroom, good ones, need to have an objective in mind. They can be quite specific to help recall information or invite a student to explore a learning objective, depending on when they are used and what the desired outcomes of a lesson are. Ideally, they are crafted in a way that encourages students to develop their own questions, develop their own tools for investigation and think critically about the results. A good lesson will begin with a good question.
Good research, as I’ve taught in my science classes, also begins with a good question. It involves thinking critically about prior knowledge and investigating further to help address the question or, as usually happens, identify new ones. It can’t, however, be based on a prescribed set of outcomes. You don’t design an experiment to achieve an established set of results the way you create questions based on established learning standards in a classroom. As an educator, I’ve needed to pay closer attention to the types of questions I’ve been asking.
The focus of my questioning so far has been about how the types of vocational programs to be offered are chosen and how industry and educators have worked together to create the curriculum. These questions, during the first two months of my research project, seem to have led me farther and farther away from the classroom. The newly revised (circa 2013) scheme for vocational education at the secondary level was a top-down directive from the central government through the Ministry of Human Resources to help address the huge numbers of unskilled youth coming up in the government schools all across India. This policy is based on some of the best practices from other international models and hopes to create a skilled workforce in everything from IT to agriculture. These newly skilled youth will then find employment through the simultaneously created initiatives to increase industry, infrastructure and exports in the coming generation. At a policy level, it’s been fascinating to explore and has led me to meetings in Mumbai, Delhi, Bhopal and around India to talk with the different layers and players. This includes the newly created National Skills Development Corporation that has done a skills survey gap of the entire country to identify needed professions to the PSS Central Institute of Vocational Education, that is working with industry Sector Skills Councils to create learning standards to be taught in the classrooms and workshops.
Questions I’ve been asking here have been around how the country is addressing the skills gap, partnerships between industry and educators and how programs are chosen and accessed by students around the country. These are questions that translate easily to my own school district, as we try to reinvent our career and technical education programs for the 21st century.
Most of my questions so far have been “how,” and “how many,” followed up with “who” and “how come.”
Answers to the questions I’ve been asking have given me some amazing “best practices” to bring home to my administration in America. So far, the data is showing that from 40 schools, there are now more than 2,900 that have at least two different vocational training options at the high school level serving over 2 million students. At a policy level, this kind of data supports successful outcomes from ideas that could possibly be implemented in my district. At the implementation level, however, a lot remains to be seen. I have yet to spend much time in the actual vocational classroom. I’m starting to worry that not many of the policy makers have either.
Still quite a new policy, there aren’t a lot of answers to questions about “who” and “what impact” and “what now,” that I’m starting to realize I need to be asking. Top-down educational policy with limited teacher input doesn’t always yield the results intended, so questions about implementation (rather than just policy) need to drive the next few months of my research. I’m incredibly grateful for the time people are willing to spend with me and don’t want to waste it by only asking questions that a data table could answer or are worded to confirm what I already believe to be true. I want to learn to ask questions with no expected outcome or agenda or “learning objective.” More like a student than the teacher, I’d like to be okay with just being curious.