10 Rhetorical Questions To Create New Ideas For Learning

10 Rhetorical Questions To Create New Ideas For Learning

by Terry Heick

Lately I’ve found myself squinting a bit at some of the practices and structures in teaching and learning.

This squinting is less about efficiency or performance, but rather what effect each piece has—a kind of causal analysis. This is the cause, and it might have this effect.

In trying to imagine what would be different if we did this instead of that, I was surprised at how education has settled on a small handful of models in light of so much possibility. Was it because we’ve found the magic formula, and in 2017 we’re in an era of simple refinement? That we know “what works,” and now it’s all a matter of tweaks?

That if teachers just listened and did what they were told and used #edtech and stuck to the script and if parents just read to kids and if poverty wasn’t an issue and if classrooms were more inviting and we just used the data that is staring us in the face that it’d all somehow coalesce?

So, this list. Other ideas for learning. I’m not saying any of these ideas are good—or even the least bit viable. I’m not saying they wouldn’t be downright destructive, curiosity-snuffing intellectual abominations that’d take education back to the dark ages. I’m just wondering what would happen.

10 Rhetorical Questions To Create New Ideas For Learning

What if students only learned through networks?

Peer-to-peer, school-to-school, local, global, digital, physical—whatever.

Maybe students were simply grouped strategically by any number of characteristics—interests, geographic location, creativity, or simply at random? That a school day was a matter of turning on a mobile device and seeing what others were doing like some giant, informal think tank?

Or maybe students could even choose their own reasons for grouping, and the only condition was that all communication, process, and product was socialized and published. No curriculum, no testing, no adult pushing or pulling.

And let’s say this happened for all students after 5th grade—middle school forward. What would happen? Would these networks fail the introverted students? Would they devolve into a digital form of Lord of the Flies? Would these networks give immediate non-adult-centered credibility to everything because teachers were no longer out in front?

What if students learned in a basic “read & respond” pattern?

And that was it. Or they read, then tweeted, recorded vlogs for their YouTube channel, blogged—simply created *something* as a result of their reading. Teachers became Google-powered librarians helping students find stuff to read, or stuff to do as a result of their reading.

Just read—maybe within a framework or reading list, or maybe entirely on their own—and then did something as a result? What would they do? What would they read and why? Where would the book recommendations come from if not teachers? What would that process of building pathways to books and blogs and stuff worth reading—and then producing something from that reading—do for the student long term?

Would students “fall behind”? And what exactly would they be falling behind? Who or what would be “ahead”? Students that studied traditional academic content in traditional ways?

Are they ahead now?

What if students were given learning targets and simple templates to create their own units?

And then a constant catalog of digital tools to practice, and “learning appointments” with teachers to meet the targets when all else failed, and couldn’t progress from one level or “area”—like a video game—until they’d mastered the one previously.

Would they just sit there and drool and act clueless? Would that be educational malpractice? Would they create interesting learning pathways that fit them perfectly? Would they choose work that was “too simple”? Disconnected? If so, would passionate and self-directed pursuit of disconnected, simplistic work be more or less rewarding than the industrialized cognitive food they’ve been getting?

(Serious question. Could be worse.)

What if students learned entirely through existing models of genius?

Models they found compelling themselves—and then “responded”?

The Eiffel Tower. A Shakespearean sonnet. A Bugatti Veyron. A particle accelerator. A desalination device. A field of fertile topsoil. A sculpture. An act of kindness. A painting.

They were given a “thing” and had to do something with that thing. Had to somehow deconstruct it—find genius in the genius—and then use that idea on their own, in a way that made their eyes sparkle. No rubric–it didn’t matter how ambitious they got. It was the teacher’s job to help them understand the thing, and see the possibility on their own, but what they did and made was “theirs.”

What if students learned from evolving questions?

You give them a question, and they take that question as a framework to think. The question would have to have certain design elements, like an essential question, that’d require them to think, pause, respond, iterate, respond, iterate, and so on, flinging themselves along on a taut line of better and better questions? And only stopped, like taking an exit off the expressway, when they felt moved to act as a result?

Is it enough to learn merely by questioning? Existing models of learning value responding over creating. Answers. “Solutions.” What would happen if we valued questions more? Would a classroom devolve into a murky plaything of wordplay and absurdity? Pure rhetoric and semantic gimmickry, like a certain historic gadfly?

What if students only studied one thing at a time?

And did so deeply with every minute of every day.

What if students created—or co-created–learning blends of given ingredients?

And each “class” was a blend?

Imagine each “blend” is a mix of critical ingredients of learning. First we’d have to determine those ingredients. Collaboration, compelling content, digital tools, questions, workflow patterns, texts, learning taxonomies, and more. Maybe a personal—and local–need to understand? What might these open-ended but framed learning experiences look like?

A poem + evaluate + social upheaval in 1960s south

Any geometric shape + existing architecture in New York City + Minecraft

The Mariana Trench + smartphone + 90-second documentary

Twitter + expert in social marketing + local issue in need of visibility

Unless you’ve worked with learning blends, this one may seem a bit confusing. In fact, it’s even a bit confusing if you have. We’ve written about this in the past–learning blends and combination learning are essentially the same thing.

What if learning started–and coudn’t continue without–an intense need to know?

Speaking of a “need to know,” what if all learning started there—for each student personally. A concrete and immediate need to understand something was articulated for each student based on their own context, history, and circumstance.

This wouldn’t be just a matter of curiosity, or a teacher “engaging” a student in pursuit of a standard. A need to know is urgent enough that the teacher can create it, and then immediately shift their role into one of resource and support.

What if students could create and share their own learning playlists that built off one another?

That, somehow, they felt an extraordinary need to create playlists—and subsequent performance—that was catalyzed by peer pressure? Kind of like a modern academic that seeks to “publish” to push conversations forward—or merely to seek approval from colleagues? What would these playlists look like? How would they be shared? What would teachers do to serve the students through it all?

What if every step of the learning and collaboration process was curated?

Everything they said, wrote, created, etc., in audio, visual, or physical form. Podcasts, videos, documents, etc. And then had to organize and share it with family and friends in some elegant and compelling way.

What if all learning was a matter of citizenship?

Something like this–pursuit of self-knowledge in order to work and live better on a moment by moment basis.


The idea here is not to say any of the above thinking is “good,” but rather an overly-wordy hope that we might be willing to think about teaching and learning as a matter of clean-sheet design, where they are no sacred cows. And further, trying to understand the cause-effect relationship between this strategy on that student.

10 New Ideas For Learning; 10 Rhetorical Questions To Create New Ideas For Learning