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Learning Library Blog 17 questions we should really be asking students
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17 questions we should really be asking students

By Jaime Casap
June 17, 2016
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Let's face it, the economy looks a whole lot different than it did 100 years ago. We are no longer part of a factory-based, manual labor economy. We enjoy a globally connected, knowledge-based economy where computing and technology will continue to drive a lot of the "jobs" that used to be executed by humans.

The questions we’ve been asking students for decades are no longer suitable in this new world. For 100 years, teachers, parents and guidance counselors have been asking students: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I've stood by as my own 15-year-old has struggled to answer politely, but you can feel the pain he experiences when trying to reply.

That question was fine enough when I was a young lad a long, long time ago. We had something like 10 jobs. You either wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, a firefighter or an astronaut (yes, I am that old!). But we no longer live in that world. We have thousands of jobs, and more are being created each day.

It’s a common refrain that most students today will be working in jobs that do not yet exist. And this is nothing new. I work for a company and in a job that didn't exist when I finished graduate school, let alone high school.

The right questions

A better question to ask students — and one that reflects the economy we face — is, "What problem do you want to solve?" You can follow up with, "What skills and knowledge do you need to address that problem?" And, "What do you need to learn to solve that problem?"

It doesn't have to be a global issue like world hunger. It can be figuring out how to make cars drive themselves or educating children in a remote mountain village or learning how to tell better stories through video.

What problem do you want to solve gets us closer to what motivates all of us, as described by Daniel Pink in his book Drive. He lists the essential elements of human motivation: purpose, autonomy and the ability to build mastery. It also gets at the No. 1 thing all employers are looking for from their job candidates: problem-solving skills.

We now have all the world's information in our pockets, and yet, we haven't even begun to take advantage of it. So ask students what problem they want to solve and then challenge them to dive deeper into understanding it by asking:

  • What knowledge, skills and abilities do you need to solve that problem?
  • Who is focused on that problem and what are they doing?
  • What classes can you take? Online? Offline?
  • Who can you collaborate with?
  • What research is out there?
  • What publications, newsletters and communities should you subscribe to?
  • What books should you read? What videos and documentaries should you watch?
  • Who should you follow and pay attention to? On Twitter? On LinkedIn?
  • What blogs and perspectives should you read?
  • Which university is the expert on this problem? What are they doing? How can you contribute to resolving that problem today?

When we ask students what problem they want to solve, we are asking them to define their focus and interests (purpose), to determine the way the problem should be solved (autonomy) and to understand what they need to learn and the skills they need to build (mastery).

In other words, we are asking what motivates them. Daniel Pink would be proud!

Jaime Casap is chief education evangelist at Google. At ISTE 2016, he shared ideas for making education more relevant during the preconference learning academy on Google Apps for Education. Want to be notified of more great learning opportunities?