Ask more questions and put yourself out of work

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Organic farm serviced by students from local elementary and high schools.

Over the summer I learned about the power of questions in the most novel of places, Kenya.  I participated in an educational trip organized by Me to We, a path-breaking service organization based in Toronto, Ontario run by two social entrepreneurs, brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger.  Both have fascinating stories about how they seized on an idea for improving the world and wouldn’t stop until it became a reality. Their appreciation for questions is what I’ll remember most.

I’d never been on a trip like this before and didn’t know what to expect. There’s always a delicate balance to strike when an organization enters another culture with an idea for how it can “make it better.” Tread too cautiously and your impact fades quickly. Come on too strong and your help is rejected. 

It so happened that Craig Kielburger was making his rounds around the world and stopped in Kenya right in the middle of my visit. Our group of 20 travelers had the opportunity to have dinner with him where he shared the history of the organization and the exciting new developments on the horizon. Most inspiring was when Craig talked about the innovative development model of We Villages, which is designed to eradicate poverty through five pillars of support: water, food, education, health and opportunity.

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Local community leaders requested a water well so children could go to school and pick up water on their way back home instead of missing school and having to walk all the way to the river.

This is where the questions came in…

Rather than impose the five pillars of support onto these remote Kenyan village communities in the Maasai Mara, Me to We interviews the local leaders of the villages and asks them questions about what they need. The village leaders then review the pillars, make project selections and organize the members of their community to participate in the improvements. Engaging the community leaders and members in this way is the most critical action to the sustainability of the project. For example, during my trip, local Kenyans helped build a new school with funds raised by Me to We for the education pillar. With the food pillar, school children helped tend the organic farm.

Notice how questions are being used as a tool for empowerment. In a subtle yet profound way, asking questions is shifting the responsibility for success onto the people of the community being served. The people are invested in the sustainable solution. This quote from the Me to We website captures beautifully this focus on sustainability:

Our goal is to reach a point where our partner communities don’t need our help any more. Instead, they have the training and tools to thrive for generations. In other words, we’re in the business of putting ourselves out of business.  https://www.we.org/we-villages/our-development-model/

Think if we carried the same philosophy into our classrooms.

We make a living imposing rules and expectations on students and place the burden on ourselves to create the perfect conditions for learning and motivation.  We don’t make it a habit to ask students questions about what they want.  As a result, from a student perspective, learning is understood as compliance, something one does at the request of others. This is useful in many settings but too much of it breeds student dependence. It’s not a sustainable model.

What if we had a different mindset with our students? What if we asked more questions about what they want and really tried to engage them in their own education from the very beginning?  Seizing on these opportunities to secure an upfront personal investment would pay huge dividends.

It sounds so simple but it’s really a difficult mental shift. But it’s worth it I think.  Like Me to We, shouldn’t our goal be to create confidence within students so they have the skills to solve their own problems and don’t need us?

Thanks to Me to We and my Kenyan adventure I’m inspired to identify and act upon more opportunities to ask more questions of my students and to work towards a very different long-term goal: to put myself out of work.


What would this shift look like in your classroom?  Share in the comments!

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