James Lang: The Importance of Great Questions

Cengage draws inspiration and guidance from the most influential books on teaching techniques. James Lang (author “Small Teaching”), and Ken Bain (author “What the best college professors do” are two of our favourite authors.
In 2017, James Lang visited our NYC offices to discuss a variety of ideas that he and Ken Bain use in their teaching. Lang talks about the importance to start students with great questions.

How can we motivate students to learn?
We’re going to discuss a structure I borrowed from Ken Bain, who wrote “What The Best College Teachers Do”. Ken argues that college teachers often come into classes and say, “Here’s some content I have for your benefit.” It’s interesting. He says that you should learn about it and that this is not the best way to motivate learners.
Dan Willingham is another cognitive theorist I like. He says:
People are curious. People are naturally curious but not interested in the answers. They are curious about the answers to their questions.
It’s not a good idea to just walk into a class and say, “I have some answers for you here.” This is not going to motivate our students. When we look at it from a different perspective, most of our classes and disciplines were created because we are interested to answer big conceptual questions about life and the human condition.
Ken believes that our disciplines and classes are answers to fundamental questions. However, we often fail to foreground these questions. Ken’s idea is that:
We should design courses around problems, questions, and challenges that we offer to students…
This can be done in a course as well as in individual learning sessions or units of a course. It can also be presented digitally or face-to-face.
How can we approach starting with our biggest questions or problems, letting students engage with them, think about them, and then letting our courses answer those [questions]?