cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Monday, December 21, 2015

Burning Questions

The great psychologist and inner development teacher A.H. Almaas is one of my favorite authors of talks that make me think hard and clearly about what I do as a teacher and why I am doing it.

Because our semester just ended and I will have all-new classes in the new semester, I have been reflecting on how I'm dealing with homework. This is the first time I've ever felt good about my homework strategy — not only because it is working but also because it is aligned with something fundamental that Almaas writes about in his talk on "The Value of Struggling," in his book Diamond Heart Book One: Elements of the Real in Man:
  When you have an issue in your life, the point is not to get rid of it; the point is to grow with it. The point is not just to resolve the issue; the point is to grow through resolving it. So in many ways, you can see that maturity has to do with this growth, this broadening, this depth. (p. 128)
In my classes, this is the point of having homework and of doing homework; so the same should be true with the way in which we deal with points of struggle.

For this reason, the most important part about homework and homework review in my classes has become what I call burning questions. As Almaas says,
   In terms of working here, the question you bring to your teacher has to be a burning question. If you have a feeling one day and don't understand it, don't run to your teacher saying, "I was walking down the street, and this person said such-and-such to me and I felt scared. Why was I feeling scared?"  That is not a burning question. (pp. 127-8)
So for the first four minutes of class, while the intro theme music is playing and while the countdown timer counts down on the screen, students' job is to compare answers and methods in their table groups and to explain to each other anything they can to work through their routine questions and problems with the homework.

Their other goal is to identify any burning questions that they can not answer for themselves or each other. I tell them explicitly and repeatedly for the first two weeks of class that I will only take burning questions — in other words, "group questions" that they can confirm that they cannot answer for themselves.

This, I believe, is the most important classroom cultural thing I establish about homework review. In my classroom, homework review is not the place where you should collapse like a helpless baby and expect me to take your problems away. Homework review and questions to the teacher should be the place to bring your burning questions, which can help you to struggle better and to get that last little boost you need to work your way up to the next level of understanding:
   Respect your issues, grapple with them, struggle with them.  When an issue comes up, involve yourself in it, observe, pay attention, be present, understand it as best you can, using all the capacities you've got. Then, if the issue is hard for you to understand and you can't get through it and the fire is burning inside you, come and ask the question. It is that question which is the best question to ask a teacher. It is the right use of the teacher. When you ask that question, deal with it, and come to understand it, you will undergo a transformation that is not possible otherwise. Then you can take the realization and digest it, absorb it. But if you tell me to give you the enzyme and you haven't digested anything on your own, how are you going to absorb it? It's like trying to absorb big lumps that haven't been thoroughly chewed. No matter how much enzyme we put in, you'll probably only get a stomach ache.  (p. 129)
After the first two weeks of hammering this procedure and prioritization home, I have found that students really take more ownership of their own learning. They seem to better understand how I expect them to mature as learners in my classroom. And they come to appreciate — and ask — really deep and meaningful questions.


  1. What blows me away about this post is that you give your students the concept that they CAN have burning questions: this encourages them to think independently and gives validity to their own voices. Seems like the empowerment that we wish for our children.

  2. Wow. I love when I am provoked to reflect and think. It is like a piano lesson that lasts a month because it is so rich. This is a rich lesson for us all. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  3. Hello! This post was recommended for MTBoS 2015: a collection of people's favorite blog posts of the year. We would like to publish an edited volume of the posts and use the money raised toward a scholarship for TMC. Please let us know by responding via email to whether or not you grant us permission to include your post. Thank you, Tina and Lani.

  4. So homework review takes the place of any type of warmup then?

  5. Wow. I enjoy being challenged to reflect and think. It's like a month-long piano lesson because it's so rich. This is a valuable lesson for all of us. Thank you for drawing our attention to it.

  6. Wow. I like being forced to think and reflect. It's so rich that it feels like a month-long piano lesson. We can all learn a lot from this. We appreciate you bringing it to our attention.