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Transformative Questions

Theme photo from the presentation…

I’m in Eden Prairie Minnesota today opening up a conference whose principal question is, “How do we create a culture of learners that thrive in the 21st century?” I will be doing an adapted version of a presentation that is most often called, “Cracking the ‘Native’ Information Experience,” where I identify and illustrate a number of qualities of our children’s outside-the-classroom information experiences. Those qualities are,

  • That the experience is responsive,
  • It provokes conversation,
  • It inspires personal investment, and
  • It’s guided by safely-made mistakes.

This presentation culminates with a set of transformative questions that might guide teachers (librarians and administrators) in creating learning experiences and environments that are more relevant to our learners ‘native’ information experiences and skills.

I may have posted these before, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it is perfectly ok to repeat yourself in your own blog.

Classroom Teachers:

  1. How might I alter this assignment or project so that it “Responds” to the learner? How can the experience “Talk Back?”
  2. How might I plant barriers within the assignment that force learners to “Question” their way through — to value the “questions” not just for “answers?”
  3. How can I ban silence in my classroom, provoking “Conversation” with my assignments and projects, expecting learners to exchange ideas and knowledge?
  4. How can I make their learning worth “Investing” in? How might the outcomes of their learning be of value to themselves and to others?
  5. How am I daring my students to make the “Mistakes” that feed the learning dialog?

Teacher Librarians:

  1. How can I make my library “Respond?” How can I make it “Talk Back?”
  2. How might it become a place that evokes “Questions” — not just answers?
  3. How can I ban silence, provoke “Conversation,” and expect patrons to explicitly exchange knowledge?
  4. How can I make this library a place that inspires “personal Invest”?
  5. How am I daring my students to make the “Mistakes” that feed the learning dialog — expanding and enriching the information experience?


  1. How does the learning here “Respond” to the learner? How does the learning “Talk Back” to the learner and to the community?
  2. Have my classrooms banned silence? Do the learning experiences “Provoke Conversation” by expecting learners to exchange knowledge?
  3. Are my classrooms places that student “Questions” as much as their answers?
  4. How do the learning environments in my school inspire learners to invest their time and skills for something larger?
  5. How are learners being dared to make the “Mistakes” that feed the learning dialog and how am I a part of that dialog?


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  • Cary B. Todd

    The four qualities and the transformative questions in this article bring to light the issues plaguing so many schools in low-socioeconomic status areas. In my low-SES school, students are obsessed with “the answer.” In general, processes are irrelevant. I teach mathematics in a low-SES, low prestige area. The students treat the mathematics as though it is some esoteric realm of knowledge to which they have little access without the help of an expert or authority. This phenomenon was described by Webel, and he suggested the need to shift mathematical authority from teacher to the classroom community (Webel, 2010). My students of a low-SES background are not keen on taking risks in the classroom; they are not willing to take chances to make a mistake.

    I would venture to guess that much of this is related to the culture of poverty. My students simply do not have the same access to many of the cultural activities that are valued by our society at large. The transformative questions in this article are critically important for low-SES schools. If we are to close the achievement gap between the affluent and the poor, we must teach our low-SES students the value of process and reasoning skills as opposed to the answer. We must teach our students to take pride in hypothesizing and conjecturing in order to facilitate learning. We must model interacting with others in a way that encourages thinking and reflection.


    Webel, C. (2010). Shifting Mathematical Authority from Teacher to Community. Mathematics Teacher, 104, 315-318.

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  • Andrew Peterson

    2.Have my classrooms banned silence? Do the learning experiences “Provoke Conversation” by expecting learners to exchange knowledge?

    I can see where this would create a LOT of waves. Teaching students to thrive in this type of environment could easily backfire if the next learning environment they are exposed to is more….. traditional.

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  • http://teacherslore.posterous.com Roger Dupuy

    Kids can shift behavior. You’ll only upset the unreflective, unwilling to change teacher. Admin needs to recognize what the dynamic is and support the first teacher and gently counsel the second one.

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  • http://www.CRTutoring.com Jordan Patterson (CR Tutoring)

    Very difficult and certainly thought-provoking questions! Thanks!

    Is “making responsive assignments” essentially synonymous with technology integration? Is there any way to make assignments “talk back” to students without technology?

  • http://learningspy.edublogs.org David Didau (@LearningSpy)

    I love these questions: am going to pin them up somewhere.

    1. Creating a dialogic classroom is a key tenet of formative assessment – without this kind of back & forth between teachers and students, any progress made is despite rather than because of what you teach.

    2. It is vital that students can value the process of learning rather than merely focussing on the end product.

    3. All classrooms should be organised to encourage collaborative learning. This is how student learn best. If you’re not doing this, why not? The most common answer is fear!

    4. All learning should relate to the real world and be of some practical value. Students need to know that learning is a lifelong process.

    5. Without mistakes, there is no learning. Samuel Becket said we should aspire to “fail better”.

    Can think of at least one more important question which has to do with nurturing effort:

    6. How am I challenging my students to work hard and not take the easiest route to completing a task. How am I encouraging students to value effort and not to believe that ‘smart’ people don’t have to work at it.

    Thanks, David

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  • http://teachinghumans.blogspot.com Sean Wheeler

    @Andrew Peterson,

    If the next learning environment is silent, then it’s next on the list to change. Aren’t we about done hedging our classroom practices based on the bad practices that we feel students need to be “ready” for? If our classrooms aren’t places where students have a voice in their learning, than who’s classroom is it? I work in a district that seems ever-fearful of upsetting the apple-cart. But what if those apple carts are filled with rotten apples? Waves are good, especially at EROSION!!!

  • http://www.coachoutletcalgary.com coachoutlet

    Has the classroom banned silence? Does the learning experience provoke ” Conversation,” by expecting learners to exchange knowledge?

  • Andrew Peterson

    @Sean Wheeler, I would agree that the silent classroom needs change, but unless you can change it from the top down (or at least make it acceptable) the disruption from the various learning environments would cause more harm than good (in my opinion).

    I might be underestimating the teachers ability to reshape the students, or the students ability to conform to a new learning environment, but my instinct is to try and protect the kids from that type of transition. Perhaps that chaos would be beneficial to their ability to adapt to learning environments, who knows…..

Photo taken by Ewan McIntosh in a Taxi in Shanghai

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