As many regular readers of Teacherevolution know, I teach at a small, rural school in Northern Ontario. There is only one other full time staff in my English department and we couldn’t be more different in terms of teaching styles: he’s old school cool and I run an ‘A type’ 20th century classroom. We do agree on many foundational principles in the ELA classroom, though, one of which we hold dearly as academics and teachers: the art of questioning.
The skill of thinking and asking questions is one that we feel students will use throughout their lives, long after they leave us – allowing them to scratch the surface of any situation, person, text or trial they may encounter. Our motto in teaching literature, media and listening is often the same: “question everything.”
When students learn how to question effectively, they are thinking deeply: about purpose, audience, reliability, bias, etc. We teach them to think rather than blindly accept everything that is communicated to them at face value.
The skill of questioning is invaluable to being a rational person, but one that seems to be on the attack throughout the coronavirus pandemic in society at large, but especially on social media. Fear and panic do that to people – it stops them from questioning and thinking for themselves: blindly following messages without thinking deeply about their purpose, audience, reliability, bias, etc.
As a teacher and academic, I’m worried about the coronavirus, but also about what I see via people’s blind obedience to governments and health professionals who seem to be fumbling through this with us – with new, and often contradictory, statements from day to day.
Before you jump in with two feet into the next message or media propaganda delivered by our government or health unit, think about how travel bans have been dealt with throughout the coronavirus pandemic in Canada. First, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer informed Canadians on Feb. 26th that “Viruses know no borders and we have to balance our public health measures knowing that they are never completely perfect.” Then, less than two weeks later we see travel bans occurring based on her suggestion. Maclean’s magazine has published articles questioning the motives of not having travel bans as a political, not public health issue, stating “Here in Canada, we can be fairly certain that our governments’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, at all three levels of government, have been shaped by our sensitivity to potential accusations of racism by Chinese government propaganda. Why else did Canada refrain from limiting travel from Hubei and China, only to close off virtually all foreign travel mere weeks later.”
Clearly, there was much more to the travel ban issue than simply ‘public health.’ There were political correctness issues at play, as well as power struggles between the agendas of the public health officer, government and public opinion. As Canadians, we were simply pawns in the game – yet for the most part, we didn’t question the contradictory actions of our leaders.
Similarly, the new hype on all media seems to be ‘social distancing’ and the rules involved in this practice. The ‘rules’ seem to be changing daily, and becoming more draconian while those in the public who seek to think and question these practices are being tarred and feathered. This is contrary to the very fundamentals of our democratic society – yet the overwhelming voice of the ‘blind rule followers’ seems to be the only one allowed to be heard.
As a rational, logical person I’m allowed to have questions about this practice, or any other scenario that directly impacts my life and that of my family; I also want to teach my students and children that it’s OK to question authority – albeit in a responsible, logical manner.
One example of a valid question that I’ve discussed with my own family and friends is the issue of socializing outside, 6ft or more apart. This was sparked by an article being shared on Facebook that discussed the “spirit of social distancing.” Many people were sharing this article as a way to ‘shame’ neighbours sitting outside, more than 6ft apart, visiting as a method of taking care of their own mental health during this trying time. As a rational, logical adult I have no issue with this practice. Many studies and medical professionals have stated that the transmission of COVID-19 beyond a 6ft range, outside, is negligible. Therefore, sitting outside, in a lawn chair, or as in the picture in the article in your vehicle more than 6ft away from people is a responsible way of dealing with the social isolation many are currently experiencing. Nevertheless, due to blanket statements issued by the government and health officials which are meant for a very broad public, this practice is “against the rules”, thus needs to be blacklisted. However, once you question why this practice is banned, even though it isn’t harming anyone, nor is it putting anyone’s health in danger, it’s hard to follow “the rules” blindly.
When we return to regular classes via online platforms on April 6th, one of the first things I’m going to ask students to do is free write as many questions that they can about the coronavirus and their experience throughout the pandemic to date. Then, I will ask them to select a few key questions, and use effective research/communication skills to attempt to answer them. Next, we will be analyzing a variety of media messages and texts based on the following questions:
- What is the purpose of this message/media text?
- Who is the intended audience of this message/media text?
- Is the person delivering or creating this media text credible and reliable?
- Does the person delivering or creating this message or media text have a considerable bias?
- What is “missing” from the message or media text?
- How does this message/media text impact my life, personally?
I’m looking forward to challenging my students to think rationally and critically about the messages we are being fed via the onslaught of media we are all facing on a daily basis.
The art of questioning is at the heart of our democratic society, and it is central to being a rational, thoughtful person. Let’s not forget that as we face our fears and anxieties throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Teach your students/children to question what’s happening to them and around them – and value questioning as a healthy, academic practice.
What are your thoughts about the practice of questioning and teaching this skill to students? Comment below!