The Power of "Why?"

Students in Hampton, Virginia, and Brooklyn, New York, learn that asking questions is more powerful than memorizing answers.

Hampton Youth Commission Chair Brad Knight, left, talks with Hampton Mayor Molly Joseph Ward at a “Meet and Greet” that the Youth Commission set up with the City Council. In Hampton, young people have advisory roles in all aspects of city government.

Photo by Cheryl Copper

Three years ago, Ross A. Kearney II wanted to build a trade school. Kearney, mayor of the coastal city of Hampton, Virginia, thought a new trade school would curb the high drop-out rate in a community where nearly half the residents live in poverty. He took his pitch to a city-appointed commission.

After careful questioning by commissioners, it became clear that the trade school, however compelling a proposal in its own right, would not actually solve the problem it was intended to solve. Young people were dropping out for reasons that could not be addressed by the presence of a trade school. Therefore, a trade school was not a viable solution. The answer was no.

Another day in local politics? Not exactly. The commissioners were not a panel of local business and academic leaders. They were the 24 high-school-age members of the Hampton Youth Commission. And they prepared for the meeting not by memorizing facts and figures, but by practicing how to ask questions.

The Power of Inquiry

“We’re all naturally curious,” says Allyson Graul, who worked with commissioners as director of the Youth Civic Engagement Center at Alternatives, Inc. in Hampton. “But in so many ways our society has shut down our curiosity and replaced it with these right-wrong answers. Our school system has created young people who are just about getting the ‘right’ answer without really looking beyond that.”

Melia Reschools Herself

Melia Dicker

Last fall, Melia Dicker, 28, went to her middle-school dance. And to third-grade recess. And senior English.

For her one-woman project, Reschool Yourself, Dicker revisited her childhood classrooms, shadowing students and interviewing teachers to figure out how school had defined her adulthood. Read on...

:: More Radical Acts of Education

Schools increasingly focus more on the answer than the question. Teachers are deemed successful if their students answer exam questions correctly, not if they can think critically. Science, civics, art, and other inquiry-based subjects get pushed aside in favor of subjects that are quantifiable. This is a profound irony, considering that what society needs from citizens, and what businesses need from workers, is the ability to inquire, analyze, and discern.

After all, answers change. Information changes. Elana Karopkin, founding principal of the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, a New York City public school that in 2008 graduated 93 percent of its first class and sent 80 percent to college (compared to citywide averages of 56 percent and 60.5 percent, respectively), pushes her students to inquire.

“We’re not just teaching content, we’re not even just teaching skills. We’re teaching habits of mind,” she says. Today’s high school graduates are likely to have 11 jobs and move nine times over the course of their lives. Good educators want students to learn to probe deeply so that they can navigate whatever they encounter; they enforce this habit through questioning.

The ability of our citizens to inquire has profound implications for whether we can fulfill the promise of our democracy. If our entire educational system centers on asking students to recall information, they don’t develop the skills to formulate opinions on complicated matters. We shouldn’t be surprised that they grow up disengaged from democracy and make decisions based on the charisma of politicians rather than the substance of their positions.

Democracy can be the perfect laboratory for teaching young people to inquire. When students are encouraged to ask questions about how their communities work, they begin to understand the purpose of education and realize that without it, they cannot be effective change agents in their world.

Questioning Power in Hampton

The unique experiment of the Hampton Youth Commission began in the mid-1990s as a means of lowering the local dropout rate and creating a competitive workforce and an engaged citizenry. The mayor and the city manager brought together youth and community leaders and the heads of social service agencies and told them to come up with a plan.

The students are engaged. The culture of the town has changed.
The turnout of young Hampton voters in the 2004 elections was
29 percent higher than the national average.

“It was a very traditional group,” said Cindy Carlson, director of the Hampton Youth Commission. What they wound up with, however, was pretty untraditional: a plan not just to serve youth but also to engage them.

The leaders recognized that Hampton needed new voices around the table if it wanted more than the same old task-force report. First, the city’s planning director hired two young people to serve as “youth planners” in the city’s Department of Planning and help develop the youth component of the Community Plan, a document that sets short- and long-term goals for the city. In 1998, the city decided that a larger group of young people should advise the youth planners, and the Hampton Youth Commission was born.

These two dozen teens are selected by youth and adult commission members and are charged with representing their peers in the city decision-making process. They have, as they put it, four “power plays”: policy, programs, partnerships, and philanthropy. With the youth planners, they set policy by owning a piece of the Community Plan. They recommend and start new programs, from neighborhood service and diversity promotion to youth-friendly spaces. They form partnerships with organizations throughout the city, and they have $40,000 that they can allocate each year to support local efforts of their peers.

Asking questions is integral to their ability to exercise their power. So when it came time to prepare for their meeting with the mayor, commissioners worked with Graul to learn how to ask questions. “What if we were to be open to finding out everything about this proposal? What are all of the possible questions that can be asked? I even talked about the different kinds of questions,” she recalls. “A conceptual what, a comparative which, a procedural how, a suppositional what if, an evaluative why. We talked about all of the different kinds of questions, and I just let them go.”

The Hampton Youth Commission asks questions about the kinds of public policies that would best serve their peers, they ask questions of candidates who aspire to office, and they ask questions of other young people who want to create change in the community.

The city is committed to using its own democracy as a laboratory, from the high school students on the commission to the eighth-graders required to engage in Project Citizen, an effort of the Center for Civics Education that challenges young people to seek out and propose solutions to a problem in their community. The students are engaged. The culture of the town has changed. The turnout of young Hampton voters in the 2004 elections was 29 percent higher than the national average.

Asking Why in Brooklyn

The School for Democracy and Leadership (SDL) in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn is one of the small schools that occupies a building that used to be George W. Wingate High School. In its last year, Wingate graduated 43 percent of its class. SDL graduated 90 percent of its first class. Both institutions served the same students from the same communities.

Youth Face the Holocaust

Ava Kadishon Schieber

Through an organization called Facing History and Ourselves, young people confront tough moral questions. What would you do if you witnessed an act of violence? When should you stand up against a bully or your government? Students meet people who have witnessed injustice, like artist and Holocaust survivor Ava Kadishson Schieber (pictured here telling her story to students at Chicago’s Lyons Township High School). Read on...

:: More Radical Acts of Education

Although the focus of the teachers and staff of SDL is to prepare students for college, they are also, in the words of founding principal Nancy Gannon, “incredibly steeped in activism. We encourage the students to pick something in the world or the community they want to change and then act on it together.”

SDL students are required to complete a “change project” of their own choice each year. One recent project focused on the inadequate funding of New York City public schools. It started with a question: Why were schools like theirs forced to use outdated science equipment? Students embarked on a year-long effort to understand school-funding inequities. In the process, they learned how the New York City school system is funded, analyzed the state’s tax policy, and decided to raise money for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, an advocacy organization working to secure additional state dollars for city schools. This organization took the issue of school funding to court and won a historic decision that New York State’s funding system was inequitable. The court required the state to send more money to city schools so that students like those at SDL wouldn’t have to use antiquated laboratory equipment.

Other projects are smaller in scale but still significant in effect: Students wrote a proposal for a school library where there was none, worked with junior high school students on a safe-sex education program, and launched joint poetry readings among the schools that share SDL’s campus.

Gannon believes these efforts are both preparation for and a microcosm of effective citizenship in our democracy. “To be a good citizen means that you have to be always thinking about your responsibility in the world,” she said. “I think that every school … should be talking about each of our responsibility to maintain and build responsible community, to look out for those who do not have power and who don’t have voice.”

All but two or three of the school’s first graduates immediately went on to college, some to prestigious institutions such as Brown, Williams, and Sarah Lawrence. SDL received an A on its first New York City Progress Report, for its strong academic performance, high attendance, and positive student and faculty reviews.

Why it Matters

If we start with a vision of the kind of adult we want to produce—not with the test scores we want students to attain—and work our way backward, we will see the value of preparing questioning, critically thinking young people. Engagement in their communities provides students with a context for the importance of a basic education: We must read and write if we are to vote, participate, and effectively advocate for ourselves and our communities. Projects like the Hampton Youth Commission and SDL’s change projects foster critical thinking while imparting in the young participants a sense of agency. They get to see how their engagement can influence their community. They are more confident in themselves and more confident about their democracy. And they succeed.

Interested? See Frances Moore Lappé's .


No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.