Debate Magazine

The Most Important Question a Teacher Can Ask a Student is . . .

By Stevemiranda

I was chatting with a colleague from another school today. I suggested that the way to radically improve education is not to focus on more clever ways to deliver academic content, but instead to re-imagine school so that kids can pursue topics and activities that interest them.

My friend responded by showing me a YouTube clip (see below) of an extraordinary 6th grader giving a TED talk about his work making iPhone apps. A 6th grader!

This offered strong evidence, my friend said, that my idea was impractical. “It is unrealistic to think that we could ever possibly match every student with the right content teacher relevant to his/her interest and abilities,” he said.

I drew the opposite conclusion.

In his talk, the 6th grader said that he gets help from friends, family, and the folks at the Apple Store. He purchased Apple’s Software Development Kit, and is now partnering with a business to produce more apps and earning real money.

His experience offers evidence that, no matter how much of an outlier a student is, there are teachers and mentors that he can connect with to support the learning process. It just may not look like the traditional classroom, with a unionized teacher, and 30 other students sitting at desks all working on the same thing at the same time. That’s our blind spot. That’s why we think certain things about education can’t be done or are unrealistic. We’re trapped by a limited vision for what school can be.

For this kid, his teachers are not “teachers.” They are an diverse collection of mentors, and there is no reason why every kid can’t learn in this same way. It just means that the role of a classroom teacher might need to adapt. Instead of needing to be a master of all the things that kids could possibly be interested in, the teacher is now a part-time teacher and part-time facilitator—connecting kids with resources in the community to help them pursue the things that give them joy.

Maybe those resources are professionals from local businesses. Or, maybe they are online resources like Khan Academy, iTunes U, or the MIT OpenSourceWare. As a teacher, I don’t have to know how to separate differential equations; I can direct students to an online resource that can show them how. Then, if a student loves it and wants more, I can connect her with my friend who works at Google and uses differential equations in his job everyday, and can show the student the practical application of learning this material.

The most important question a teacher can ask a student is not, “Did you do your homework?” It’s not, “Did you study for your test?”

The most important question a teacher can ask a student is, “What are you interested in learning?”

Re-imagining education in such a way that students pursue the things that give them joy, integrating members of the community and the endless resources now available online, and redefining the role of the teacher from dispenser of knowledge to mentor/connector—that’s the killer app in education.

(Join the discussion at Get updates at

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog