Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Why not ask “why not”?

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Do you know that story about the philosophy exam where there was just one question: “Why?” – and the student who got an “A” was the one who responded, “Why not?”

Or do you know this quote, the one along the lines of: Some people look at the world as it is and ask “why?”, others [or I] look at the world as it should/could be and ask “why not?” (it’s either Robert Kennedy or George Bernard Shaw, google is confused)

Anyway, I realize that in the latter example, the “why” and “why not” are different from the kind of “why” we’re talking about in #ccourses this 2-week unit, right?

I absolutely believe in the importance of asking why. Too often, teachers think of what (content) they plan to teach of how (process) they will use to teach it, but it is more essential to ask “why”, the values and goals behind that teaching. For some reason, the “why” to me sounds more focused on values than goals. I actually think it’s ok to be flexible with one’s goals. Sometimes my “why” is a process goal not a product goal… if that makes sense? Meaning, my goal is not to produce a certain visible outcome in students, but to help them achieve a process of doing and being (not one of knowing that ends once they “know” it). Infinite loop and all that 😉 Then again, I’m living proof of that saying “the more you know, the more you don’t know”

But let me come back to my main point: why not ask “why not”? I started the idea of this blogpost just to be subversive, not really because I had something in particular in mind, but you know, sometimes a title of a blogpost inspires ideas. I stopped and while I was putting my daughter to sleep kept asking, hmmm, why not ask why not?

I believe in the critical approach to curriculum theory as applied in context, and I believe that whatever we intend does not always pan out as planned in reality. I also believe that sometimes what seem like (or genuinely are) the best of intentions can hide other values that we’re not so proud of saying explicitly.

(I just wrote some stuff that I lost so will have to make this quick coz i have loads of other writing to do tonight):

Here is an example of a “why not” to follow the “why”. We have a core curriculum course called Scientific Thinking which is all about scientific literacy, critical thinking, etc, including parts about ethical and social issues in science; and the choice of content is often current and history of science topics like evolution, stem cell research, atom bomb, falsification of hypotheses, big bang, etc. i am not sure what the latest topics are, but the course itself evolves and is a multi-section course with some common parts. Here are some “why not” questions I have always had:

Why not include topics around Arab/Muslim or even ancient Egyptian scientists? I ask this not simply out of nationalistic pride, but because I feel that teaching science without doing so breeds a “producer” of scientific research mentality: science is something “they” do in the West, “we” consume here in our part of the world. It has potential colonizing qualities…

Why not discuss the problems of scientific research on our region? The reality is that even though historically there has been impact on science from the region, most current Arab/Muslim scientists are either living in the West, or at the very least mostly educated in the West. It’s not enough to take pride in historical accomplishments or pride in the work of a few. It’s maybe time to also question the sad state of research in our region and find the root causes, consider possible solutions.

Why not allow students more control over setting the agenda of the course around topics they care about? (don’t think this one needs explanation, do you?)

I say these two things because, even though the “why” of that course is already pretty solid, pretty useful, by focusing on just that why we may be missing a lot of valuable opportunities for why nots.

Curious what others think 🙂

2 Comments

  1. One of the things I hate about “why not” is that the tone that some people take is not dialogic; they throw it back at you when you might be looking for a thread to start. There are valid reasons for “why not” though. For instance, I do think that learners should be able to set the agenda around topics that interest them. Given that we work in a sector where things are pushed down from the top, I think there is a give and take. If you are in a physics course, if the learners want to focus on Theater, it may be possible to do this some of this within physics, but not everything 🙂 I think it’s a negotiation process.

    • Oh wow, ur so right about this, AK! I think you can ask ‘why not’ as a creative enthusiastic response, as in, “why not hold our class/conference outdoors?” Or you can ask it in overly critical/accusing ways. Of course, why nots are infinite… Like why not teach physics thru theater, thru twitter, thru eating, thru sewing… :))) but as i wrote each of these things, i imagined that i could think of connections to physics with all of them! If i wanted to get really creative 🙂

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