Quarters in St. Philip’s Hands

March 23rd, 2010

Each year our family spends an extended period of time in Tucson, Arizona. One of our favorite activities each Sunday is to go to the farmer’s market held at St. Philip’s Plaza. During our most recent visit I noticed in the folded hands of the statue of St. Philip a stack of quarters. My six-year-old was standing next to me at the time. She noticed the stack of quarters too. We both began to consider: Where did the quarters come from? Why are they in St. Philip’s hands, and not in the fountain? If this is an offering of some sort, why are there only quarters? There are a couple dollars worth of quarters here. Why hasn’t anyone taken them? While we never did resolve the riddle, we got to practice the art of divergent thinking, a valuable exercise for us both.

Most educational approaches with youth today are convergent. People who care about and work with teens tend to reiterate the maxims: Avoid drugs and alcohol and sex; set life goals; keep on living. But we will strengthen the effect of our message by utilizing divergent learning methods that encourage teens to consider multiple options before arriving at an answer. Too often we employ convergent methods that force youth toward predetermined answers.

Our message is like the stack of quarters in St. Philip’s hands. Others’ understanding and relationship to the message will be markedly stronger if we introduce divergent questions and encourage them to do the same. This will help them examine multiple possibilities. Those answers that best fit their experience will surface. These possibilities may be in direct contrast to their previous assumptions and perceptions. When teens adopt a new idea and shift their perceptions we say that they’ve learned something. In order for this to happen we have to be skilled at asking questions that encourage a divergent encounter with the material.

For example, if we want teens to avoid using alcohol, we should explore why they would want to use alcohol and other related issues. When we ask convergent questions we not only forfeit the opportunity to equip students with learning skills, we suppress the reality that other possible answers exist. The good news is that the vast majority of us know, or knew at one point in our lives, how to ask divergent questions.

In their book Break Point and Beyond George Land and Beth Jarman mention a longitudinal study that surveyed sixteen hundred three-to-five-year-old children in the early days of the national Head Start program. Researchers used eight tests to gauge the levels of divergent thinking. Ninety-eight percent of the children surveyed scored genius level. Five years later they tested the same children and found the proportion of students considered genius dropped to thirty-two percent. When tested after another five years, when the sample was in their teen years, the proportion dropped to ten percent. It’s notable that a mere two percent of two hundred thousand adults who have taken the test score genius level. Should we wonder, given that ninety-eight percent of us adults are not gifted at divergent thinking, that we struggle to encourage it in teens?

In Teaching as a Subversive Activity Postman and Weingartner pose what they call a “What’s-Worth-Knowing Questions Curriculum.” It’s composed of two parts that I will outline here:

  • The art and science of asking questions.
  • The focus on asking questions that deal with problems perceived as useful and realistic by the learners—as opposed to useful and realistic by the teachers.

Here are some questions they pose as a standard for asking good questions:

  1. Will your questions increase the learner’s will as well as his capacity to learn?
  2. Will they help to give her a sense of joy in learning?
  3. Will they help to provide the learner with confidence in his ability to learn?
  4. In order to get answers, will the learner be required to make inquiries? (Ask further questions, clarify terms, make observations, classify data, etc.?)
  5. Does each question allow for alternative answers (implying alternative modes of inquiry)?
  6. Will the process of answering the questions tend to stress the uniqueness of the learner?
  7. Would the questions produce different answers if asked at different stages of the learner’s development?
  8. Will the answers help the learner sense and understand the universals in the human condition and so enhance her ability to draw closer to other people?

We should ask good questions to help teens consider multiple options and ideas. Only after we’ve pursued divergent questions should we transition to a convergence phase in which youth can begin to narrow the options to those that best answer the questions.

Tags: , ,