Questions, Answers, and Community?

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu — the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness . . . We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.”Desmond Tutu[1]

At Deerfield, we pride ourselves on our sense of community. While it is difficult to translate with complete accuracy from one language to another, I think of the word ‘Ubuntu’, when I think about us exhibiting our best selves. Desmond Tutu incorporates interconnectedness into his definition of the concept. In an interview, Leymah Gbowee, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, succinctly referred to Ubuntu as the idea of “. . . you are because I am; we all exist because of the other.”[2]  I am generally inclined to consider the interconnectedness of teaching, learning, and the sharing of ideas.

Schools exist because we learn better together. When we share our perspectives on a topic or a tricky problem, we help each other consider options that we could not achieve on our own. The aphorism ‘two heads are better than one’ applies here. However, this is only true if both of the ‘two heads’ can freely share their ideas and challenge each other. Imagine the synergistic learning that can take place when the ‘heads’ are a dozen students led by a seasoned teacher — it is wonderful to witness and I’ve seen this many times at Deerfield. Ironically, some of the best learning I’ve observed occurs when students aren’t giving answers, but when they are asking questions. While answers are important, many of the problems we encounter have perfunctory solutions and the real value added is not in finding the right answer but in asking the right question. The best Deerfield classes are environments that foster the asking of questions — the more the better.

Questions can be uncomfortable. Questions imply that you don’t know.  Questions mean that you have a lot of work ahead of you.  Answers feel better, both when you give and receive them. However, if you think about the best learning that can be done — the learning that is productive, meaningful, and engaging — you will find there is a question, problem, or challenge that you simply can’t leave alone.  An answer tends to be a terminus that leaves little room for additional discovery and discussion, while a question invites partnership and portends a learning journey.  Back to Ubuntu — we choose to be at Deerfield because we hope to benefit from being connected to the Academy and to each other. We rely on each other to help us grow into our future selves; furthermore, the school itself cannot be at its best until each individual feels that their voice, perspective, and contribution matter.

When we give answers, we highlight our cleverness and conclude conversations.  I posit we can be more effective together by asking more questions. We should ask tough ones. We should craft them jointly. We should refine and clarify them. We should make sure they are meaningful. In doing so, we open conversations, invite dialogue, and we learn together — the work of a school.

Parting questions:

  1. What is the best question you’ve ever asked?
  2. What is the best question you’ve ever been asked?

 

Written by Dr. Ivory Hills

 

 

[1] The Spirit of Ubuntu. https://stories.clintonfoundation.org/the-spirit-of-ubuntu-6f3814ab8596 (accessed September 10, 2020).

[2] Emiko Noma (editor). Transforming Conflict Through Nonviolent Coalitions — Lecture by and Interview with Leyman Gbowee. https://www.sandiego.edu/peace/documents/ipj/DLS_Leymah_Gbowee_Booklet.pdf (accessed September 10, 2020).

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