In defense of the difficult questions

Students know our purpose by the questions we ask. By our questions, they know whether we are about “business as usual” — what they’ve come to expect from all the adults and institutions in their lives — or the lifelong, collective work of understanding and enriching the human condition. 

Shailee, 9th grade, records her thoughts at a student-produced interactive multimedia exhibit about social justice.


In large and small ways everyday, our students show us how deeply they care about what’s going on in the world around them. They ask questions; they share articles; they talk outside of class; they joke and wonder and argue and read. This year, as the adults in their lives and on their screens debated what a more just nation might look like, our young people took notice and added their voices to the conversation.

The civic engagement I see in my students is happening all over the nation, across college campuses grappling with complex histories of oppression and exclusion, high school students connecting our past to current injustice, protests and counter-protests contesting the boundaries we draw around socially permissible speech, young people leading movements for justice, transforming our political landscape, and challenging older models of activism — and, across the Atlantic, 18-24 year olds voting at rates unprecedented in recent history.

In and out of the classroom, there is palpable energy around the divisive political questions of our time — the kind of energy that would capture students’ attention and extend their learning. But we rarely make space for these worthwhile and difficult questions in our classrooms.

It’s not hard to see why this is the case. Although we know our students’ academic needs and interests best, most teachers lack the power to choose what and how to teach our students. Even those who can exercise some control might understandably play it safe to hold onto increasingly precarious jobs. Teachers have a well-defined and often worthy curriculum to cover; we have tests to prepare for and benchmarks to meet. We are hesitant to appear biased. Most of us are not experts on these issues. And we are working through these questions for ourselves, uncertain of what we should say, uncertain of whether there’s a place for it in the classroom at all.

Despite all of this, we teachers, administrators, and parents — we adults who care about the people our children will become — must argue in defense of the difficult questions. Students know our purpose by the questions we ask. By our questions, they know whether we are about “business as usual” — what they’ve come to expect from all the adults and institutions in their lives — or the lifelong, collective work of understanding and enriching the human condition. And when kids recognize our classrooms as sacred spaces for making sense of the world around us, education becomes beautiful and transformative.

How do we know a worthwhile and difficult question when we encounter one? I’ve found that such questions do several vital things:

1. Difficult questions force a new way of seeing and confront us with new considerations. They surprise us.

So much of what we encounter each day leaves us unchallenged. To the extent that we have the power to do so, we organize our lives around our own comfort and security – as any rational person would. But this choice narrows the ideas and experiences we can access: we come to inhabit a bubble that requires less of us each day. A good question surprises us, reminding us that there is more to consider than our own interests. Who are we leaving out or leaving behind? Whose experiences are we ignoring? Whose stories are we not telling? What does this event or institution look like for someone very different from me? A good, difficult question opens the wide world to us and demands we expand our vision to make space for all that we don’t know.

2. Difficult questions remind students that they have power over what happens in the classroom and in their lives.

When teachers ask questions we don’t know the answers to, we make it possible to have conversations and make discoveries we couldn’t plan in advance. Engaging with uncertainty leaves room for students to take responsibility for making sense of complexity. Our students are less likely to step up if they sense we already have an answer in mind: why would anyone take ownership of a lesson that had clearly been settled before the discussion even began? When we pursue understanding alongside our students, though, we empower them to decide how their learning takes place. School is no longer something that happens to them; it becomes a place where they can shape the goals and outcomes of their inquiry. And when our questions explore issues relevant to their lives, we help them see all the power they have to shape the world outside the classroom, too.

3. Difficult questions show us that our world is not the inevitable product of unchanging processes: things could be different and better.

So much about the world can seem fixed and hopeless; most people find ourselves resigned to the way things are. But a worthwhile, difficult question can reveal the choices we make every day, too often without realizing we have made any choice at all. How have our public schools become so racially and socioeconomically segregated so long after Brown v. Board? Why do most federal housing subsidies benefit the affluent while the majority of poor people receive no federal housing assistance? Is our criminal justice system the best way to address drug addiction or mental health crises or poverty? What rights do the animals we eat have? These kinds of questions remind us that it’s possible to do better. And this is the mindset most conducive to the curiosity and problem-solving orientation we hope to inspire in our classrooms. If we implicitly present our world as a settled state of affairs, we leave little incentive to wrestle with the problems we confront. But if our questions suggest that things can change, that a commitment to truth-seeking and hard choices can build a better world, students might decide it’s worth thinking deeply about how to make that happen.

4. Difficult questions reveal something about the person who asked the question: that we’re curious and willing to risk being wrong in the pursuit of truth.

Asking good questions shows our students who we are and what we care about. In this sense, worthwhile and difficult questions build meaningful relationships between teachers and students. We risk something when we ask a question that matters to us, one that we are still trying to understand. We risk a bit of our authority and control; we risk our apparent mastery; we risk revealing a glimpse of our flawed humanity. All important relationships require these kinds of risks, but classroom conventions constrain us, so students rarely encounter their teachers as fellow humans on a quest for understanding. When we are willing to show up as people who don’t yet have it all figured out, difficult questions can produce important, enduring conversations.

So this year, in response to what I heard from my students, I worked with a colleague in history to build an interdisciplinary course asking a question we continue to confront today: how have people fought to extend America’s grand promise of freedom and equality beyond its initially narrow application?

We took inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hopeful pronouncement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — a statement he uttered in a Hollywood synagogue three years before his assassination. In our current moment of deep uncertainty about our nation’s future, such a sentiment offers a longer view of how change happens. Placing King’s vision at the center of our inquiry, we called our course “The Arc of Justice in American Literature and History, 1830-1915.” [syllabus link]

Our whole-class readings focused on the past: African Americans’ struggle for civil and human rights in the nineteenth century.  But students’ individual projects and choice reading assignments were designed to help kids frame and pursue the difficult questions that seem most urgent and worthwhile to their present. Over the course of a semester, we drew on history and current events to explore how movements for justice take shape.

A variety of primary and secondary historical sources, as well as novels, films, poem, stories, photographs, and paintings, helped us explore what forces might effectively bend the arc toward justice. We grappled with John Brown’s legacy through Tony Horwitz’s biography and James McBride’s novel. We explored Lincoln’s shifting perspective on abolition by reading Harold Holzer’s compelling account and Henry Louis Gates’s edited volume of Lincoln’s writings on race. We examined the crushed promise of Reconstruction with the help of Eric Foner, W.E.B. du Bois, and novelist Howard Fast. Field trips and guest speakers supported real-world connections to the continued relevance of our course content.

Three essential questions structured our inquiry, and each question was linked to one of the three units of study described above:

  • How have individuals decided for themselves whether violence is a morally acceptable means of achieving justice?
  • How have leaders wrestled with – and evolved on – their historical moment’s central questions of justice?
  • Is a period of political and extra-legal backlash inevitable after civil rights gains?

But the real work of the course was students’ self-directed study of a movement for justice they each decided to explore independently. My essential questions became both models and touchstones for the students’ original inquiry. It was important for me to get out of the way so they could ask the questions that seemed most pressing to each of them.

Some wanted to learn more about intersectional feminism; others gravitated toward immigrants’ rights; two explored Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, and police brutality. Other projects focused on veterans’ rights, animal rights, LGBT struggles for justice, workers’ dignity, poverty, the American Indian movement, activism around mental health and disabilities, the complex role of music within the politics of liberation, and the question of whether sentient robots could lead a successful movement for self-determination.

As we moved through the whole-class readings on African American experience, students drew on what they were learning independently to identify patterns structuring how people create change. In student-led seminars and peer workshops, kids pushed each other to interrogate their assumptions and account for their biases. They suggested additional readings, helped each other craft persuasive texts for authentic audiences, and made connections across their individual projects.

The questions the students framed for themselves and posed to one another harnessed all the potential inherent in worthwhile and difficult questions. Over the course of the semester, they produced a collective understanding of the shape that movements for justice have taken in America’s history and present. They noticed that movements typically begin with a catalyzing event that promotes awareness and causes people to take a side. Next, people committed to change often fracture along ideological or strategic lines: more moderate and more militant approaches, for example. The separate paths coalesce around a moderate gain the majority can support, but this brief victory is often followed by violent backlash and political losses.

Under the guidance of our brilliant art teacher, my students worked together to turn these insights into an interactive multimedia exhibit experienced by the entire school on our last day of classes. They likewise presented their individual projects to their peers and teachers during a two-hour academic conference and panel discussion. It was clear by the end of the event that the work of the course was not done: students will continue reading, discussing, writing, wondering, and dreaming long after they receive their final grade.

As a teacher, I know that many adults are skeptical about whether our young people have something worthwhile to say about the topics my students chose to explore for this course. The arguments are familiar: adolescents’ experience is limited; they don’t yet understand how the world works; their expectations are unreasonable.

But as a teacher of English, I know why some of the most celebrated American novels about issues of justice use child narrators to tell their story. Think of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird. The frank and uncompromisingly ingenuous voices of Huck and Scout remind us that things don’t have to be as they’ve always been — that we have choices about what kind of society we want to build. What some might say discredits young people’s perspectives — their inexperience, their idealism, their lack of stake in the way things are — is exactly what makes their voices so powerful. They are free to imagine other ways of being and to work passionately toward achieving this vision.

Risking the enduring conversations prompted by worthwhile, difficult questions can help our young people change the world.



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