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Wait, what? Life's essential questions

August 31, 2017

My 11-year-old son, Weston, is the most avid reader I know. We usually end the day sitting next to each other reading. While I’ll admit my reading time occasionally consists of catching-up on the day’s news on Twitter, I also try to mix in good, old-fashioned books as much as possible.

One of my favorites this year is Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions by James Ryan, the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The book has a simple premise: we should spend less time worrying about always having the right answers and more time thinking about the right questions to ask. Ryan offers what he believes are life’s five essential questions. These questions resonated with me and I made them the foundation of my presentation at this year’s School Administrators of Iowa conference as well as the focus of this column.

Question 1: Wait, what?
“Asking ‘Wait, what?’ is a good way to avoid jumping to conclusions or making snap judgments. Too often we decide very early whether we agree or disagree with someone or with an idea, without making an effort to truly understand the person or the point” (p. 29).

This question first reminded me of the “Are you kidding me?” moments my wife and I sometimes have as parents, like when we told our son to find something to do and came downstairs to find him deconstructing an old keyboard with a hammer and using swim goggles as eye protection.
Wait, what?

More often, though, this question helps to clarify and build common understanding. I always appreciate “wait, what” questions. For example, one superintendent recently asked me, “Can you share with me the thinking behind the inclusion of the postsecondary readiness measure included in the Iowa ESSA Plan?” As a Department, we took that question to heart and have attempted to both clarify the rationale and appropriately adjust course in the latest draft of Iowa’s ESSA plan.

Question 2: I wonder…?
“In sum, the question ‘I wonder why?’ is essential because it is at the heart of curiosity... Asking ‘I wonder if?’ is equally essential because it is the way to remain engaged with the world and to begin thinking about ways to improve your corner of it” (p. 61).

Good data is a curiosity catalyst. I always appreciate it when I walk into a Professional Learning Community meeting and teachers are pouring over data to help strengthen their instruction. The Department of Education supports this work by providing information to stakeholders in reports like Metrics that Matter (which was developed jointly with several other agencies and released earlier this summer), the Iowa Postsecondary Readiness Report (which will be released again later this month), and the Iowa School Report Card (which will be updated in December) that are designed to spark “I wonder if…?” and “I wonder why…?” questions.

Question 3: Couldn’t we at least…?
“‘Couldn’t we at least agree?’ is a way to find common ground. The key to maintaining healthy and productive relationships is consensus... Asking ‘Couldn’t we at least agree?’ especially in the midst of an argument, is a good way to pause, step back, and look for some areas of agreement” (p. 65).

Significant education improvement requires consensus building. In Iowa, we’ve taken on Herculean tasks like creating the nation's most extensive teacher leadership system, redesigning how career and technical education is delivered, and committing to ensure all students are reading proficiently by the end of third grade. These efforts have been years in the making and it has taken us time to build alignment as an education system on how these programs are designed and delivered.

And we’re starting to see results. For example, the share of students who met or exceeded reading benchmarks on the screening assessment increased from 67 percent to 70 percent between fall 2016 and spring 2017, which is on top of a four percentage point increase in the previous year. Stopping to ask “Couldn’t we at least agree that…” along the way has benefited our efforts and will continue to do so in the future.

Question 4: How can I help?
“It is the question that forms the base of all good relationships. It is a question that signals that you care” (p. 102).

While state agencies like the Iowa Department of Education have a necessary compliance component inherent in their work, the Department strives to take a service-oriented approach. As director, I’ve tried to ask, “How can I help?” as often as possible (though probably still not as often as I should). In my school visits, I also see teachers and administrators consistently take this approach with students and families. This question opens up dialogue and builds a spirit of collaboration, which is critical to both improvement and success.

Question 5: What truly matters?
“It’s the question that can help you separate the truly important from the trivial and can help you maneuver through the minutiae in pursuit of the momentous” (p. 103).

As a social studies teacher, I was sometimes guilty of getting lost in the details – names of leaders, location of capitols, dates of battles – and failing to focus on the knowledge and skills that would have the biggest impact on ensuring my students were prepared to succeed in and beyond school.

This summer I attended Tech Journey’s annual tech camp, which is focused on creating opportunities and inspiring youth with limited resources to take an interest in technology. This is the type of big-picture thinking focused on important issues that will help ensure all kids in Iowa have access to the learning opportunities that set them up for a fulfilling life and career.

The bonus question: And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?

“I am simply suggesting that you consider now what will likely matter to you when your time has run out” (p. 134).

This question provides a fitting conclusion to Ryan’s book. It acknowledges that while pain and disappointment are necessary parts of life, joy and contentment can be as well. As educators, we’re well-positioned to develop a sense of fulfillment. A great example is Caroline Owen, a 103-year-old former teacher who recently reflected on the positive memories of life as a teacher.

As we move fully into a new school year, I hope each of you are able to take time to reflect on these questions and focus on what matters most in life.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on October 20, 2021 at 6:10pm.