When I first picked up A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. What followed has been a rollercoaster of emotion as I swung from ‘Yeah, I’m a good questioner!’ to ‘Wow, I really need to work on my questioning…’ and then ‘Do I really have to admit that I don’t know the answer?’ and finally ‘Yeah! This is how I want my students to think!’
Now I suppose that by conventional standards, I might be considered an expert in my subject area as a teacher. Probably not compared to my peers in the field (let’s face it, I’ve only been at this for two years), but to my students for sure. Most of them have absolutely no experience with French. However, one of the first things that stood out to me in the book was the fact that:
“Experts are apt to be poor questioners.” (Berger, 2014).
If I’m an expert to my students… does that mean I’ve started to become a poor questioner? Have I let it go to my head that I know more about French than them?
I’ve always been staunchly against the use of Google Translate by my students. In my experience, it leads to hilarious and sometimes dangerous mistranslations that, when in need of help in a foreign country, could actually hinder their efforts. As I was reading the book, though, I came across two ideas that started to rock the foundation of my opposition. One was the idea that a main driver of questioning is an awareness of what we don’t know, and the other was that in order to navigate through all the information available to us today, we have to be able to question our own assumptions (Berger, 2014). I’ve always assumed that Google Translate will give you a poor translation every time, but is that really the truth? The answer to that question is… well… I don’t know! I don’t know if there is a way to make Google Translate not suck, and that has lead to so many questions about ‘if’ and ‘how.’
At first, I thought it didn’t really matter if I could find a way to use Translate to give better translations, because I want my students to know French by heart and not use a translator. Then I realized… what if I am teaching them facts? If I’m teaching them facts, why?
“Is it wise to have an education system that still revolves around teaching students to memorize facts?” (Berger, 2014, p. 27).
When they leave school and go out on their own, they will have access to translators all the time that can find the facts for them. Who am I to say that they shouldn’t use a tool as powerful as that?
If Einstein himself said he had no reason to fill his mind with stuff that can be looked up (Berger, 2014), why should I expect that of my students? Instead, I think I need to shift the focus away from ‘DON’T USE GOOGLE TRANSLATE!’ to ‘How can we use Google Translate to get the answers that we need?’ This is very outside of the box thinking for me, and something I had not thought of before reading A More Beautiful Question. According to Berger (2014), divergent thinking is actually a form of questioning. By acknowledging that I didn’t know the answer and challenging my assumptions, I’ve developed more questions and thought more divergently over the last week than I have over the last two years.
I still don’t know the answer to the question of how to use Google Translate in a better and more efficient manner. At this point though, I think that is ok! I’d actually like to involve my students in the process. I’d like to walk in Deborah Meier’s shoes when she said she was concerned with how her students become critical thinkers and problem solvers (Berger, 2014). I think that this is a problem we can work on together, to find a way to get Google Translate to give great answers, instead of spitting out nonsense.
I do believe that learning could take place while using, or figuring out how to use, Google Translate. For one, I think it provides an opportunity to build critical thinking and research skills. Students will have to ask themselves what exactly they are trying to say or what they need (critical thinking). They then have to type that into GT and analyze what comes out. This analysis is a great opportunity to build some research skills. They would have to take what GT gives them, and either confirm (with a service like WordReference) or deny that it is correct.
As Berger (2014) writes, students find it liberating to have a teacher say they don’t know the answer, and offer to let them help find it together. Although I have some ideas, it’s still a huge question that I don’t yet know the answer to. I think with the help of my students, though, we can figure it out. Together.
Berger, W. (2016). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.