The Power of Questioning and True Scholarship


Teachers, like most of us, possess different personalities, demeanors, and teaching styles.  One curmudgeonly fellow who sticks in my memory is Mr. Andrews - my not-so-beloved 11th grade chemistry teacher.  He was a short, stocky man with a weathered face and gruff voice.  He did a great deal of his instruction from the doorway between the classroom and his office.  This was so he could hold his smoldering cigarettes over his desk and blow the smoke away from the classroom into to the space he shared with the biology teacher.  As you have likely guessed, this was a long time ago in the late 1970s when this was likely illegal but was not frowned upon.  High school has changed a bit since then.

Mr. Andrews was nobody’s favorite teacher because of the way he ran his class.  He told us he used the Socratic method and “if you don’t know what that means, go to the library and look it up!”  (Something I did not do until my college years).  In his class, everything revolved around him directly asking us questions and patiently waiting for our responses.  At the time, I thought his patience was merely a ploy to get more time to take a few extra puffs – little did I know there was a method to his madness.

This was entirely different from my preferred teachers and classes where I would take notes if I wanted, and I was really not required to participate on a regular basis.  I happily went from one teacher-centered lecture to another – able to avoid any real interactions with my instructors – until my dreaded chemistry class. In this class, we needed to be prepared because we were called upon individually and publicly reprimanded if we were unable to make a “meaningful contribution.”  Even that was a question: “Mr. Bowman, was that an answer you are proud of?”  “No, sir.”  “Well can you do better then?” (Again, a question!)  Then there would be the dreaded pause.  Half a cigarette later, Mr. Andrews would move on to the next student.

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About halfway through the first semester, there was a seismic shift in the classroom dynamic.  My friend Doug boldly raised his hand at the start of class and asked a question before Mr. Andrews could begin the class – a really insightful query about balancing chemical equations.  For a moment, it appeared Mr. Andrews smiled, but it quickly vanished with the puff of his cigarette.  He paused – the class waited nervously – and Mr. Andrews said something so very unexpected, “Very nice question, son.” 

This was the first compliment he had given all year.  He proceeded to answer Doug’s question and ended with one of his own.  Then it happened - a dialogue began – a fact-based conversation about the world of chemistry. Sometimes we quickly drilled down to the solution, and we did not always determine the right answers.  In the latter situations, Mr. Andrews would say something intriguing (and puzzling to me at the time), “at least we know the wrong way.”  To Mr. Andrews, this was how it was supposed to go – this was teaching.  The process of discovery was equally important as getting the correct answers.  Formulating insightful questions and challenging hypotheses were at the root of his teaching technique.

At great schools like Wardlaw-Hartridge, excellent instructors frequently utilize the Socratic method (without the smoking and humiliation!) – something so very scarce in my high school (and college for that matter). It is commonplace to walk the halls of the Upper School and see collaborative work taking place – students and teachers exchanging ideas – questions and answers flowing effortlessly.  If you closed your eyes, there might be times where you could not determine who was the teacher and who was the student.  While we can never replace the expertise and counsel of our esteemed faculty, our ultimate goal is to leave our students with the ability to formulate the right questions.  This is the beginning of becoming a true scholar.

Mr. Andrews’ surly manner and intimidating presence was a figurative and literal smokescreen to the underlying principles of good teaching that he employed.  Sadly, Mr. Andrews missed the last half of our school year due to a heart attack (he recovered, gave up smoking and taught for another 10 years!), but his belief in the power of questioning still lives today in my memory and in the instructional excellence at Wardlaw-Hartridge.

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