One Insightful Question Can Change Everything

Posted by on September 29, 2013 in On Life | 11 comments


by Christina Carson

Fall was one of my favorite seasons because it meant school would soon start, and I was one of those nerds who loved to learn. Not that I didn’t enjoy the seeming endless freedom of summer, for I surely did, but when the days began to cool and the drying leaves left their unique scent in the crisp air, I was ready to go back to school.

educationI hadn’t ever planned on being a teacher. I preferred being a student, but through some unexpected turns of fate, I found myself in the classroom as a teacher. During my training, I quickly assessed that the public school system and I were at odds. I wasn’t built to be a martyr, and my exploratory nature was not exactly appreciated in that one size fits all mentality of public education. So I went on to teach at a community college where I was responsible not only for the curriculum of each course I taught, but also the methodology, and that, my friends, was like dying and going to heaven. Most teachers want their students to learn and do well, but they are often up against poorly thought-through notions of both curriculum and method. Plus, with today’s eclectic mix of students in a classroom, supposedly done in the name of non-discrimination of some sort or other, we often diminish the effectiveness of the situation to some low common denominator for everyone.

As I went on in my teaching career, involved deeply in this creative line of work, I happened upon an educator from California, who even in 1970 wondered why, in such a litigious society as the United States, parents weren’t suing the educational systems for non-performance. From that straight-thinking and bold educator, I learned one of the most effective systems for teaching students I’ve ever seen. I started out mentally arguing with him when he began the workshop I attended, as I tried to defend what I had always known as education. But he got me with this one stunning question:

 If 60% is the pass mark, what was the 40 % that the student didn’t need

to learn and why was the student determining it?

I sat dumbfounded at such an obvious oversight, and that I had missed it entirely as I, the teacher, blindly trundled down the path I’d taken as a student. His next statement brought audible hoots of discredit from the group, when he then said, “What’s the problem with 100%?”

He didn’t mean learn everything in the world. He meant learn everything the curriculum specified. “Why have you made that such an impossible dream?” he asked.

What he did next was present a system whereby that could happen, one that used educational objectives correctly—not as facts to memorize but as direction for what was to be learned and how. By tying each objective to one of the cognitive domains* ( the six ways our brain interacts with data), you would inform the student what it was they were responsible for learning as well as the manner in which they had to be able to interact with it. For example, in my Human Anatomy and Physiology course an objective might read: Understand the histology of arteries and veins such that you can explain why an artery can snap shut when severed, while a vein cannot and the significance of that. Rather than the way I’d learned it: “What are the names of the tissue layers in veins and arteries.” He had a system that in the process of learning content, the student also learned how to use his powers of cognition – how to think.

Sadly, I was the only one at the school to use his system, but I’m here to tell you, it changed lives. I coupled that system with one that also taught my students how to take personal responsibility for this part of their lives. I had 80 students (ranging in age from 18 to late middle age) in my classes, and I required that they learn 100% of the material. I then set up a system which made that possible.

No, my students didn’t initially say, “Oh aren’t we fortunate.” They howled. They petitioned my supervisor. They cried. But through it all, I just kept saying we are going to do this and here’s what you’ll learn beyond human anatomy and physiology:

•    How very intelligent you actually are.

•    How capable you are to set goals for yourself and aspire to them successfully.

The noise eventually quieted down. They were just very frightened. And in the end, every education 2student made it without lowering any standards. They were amazed at how capable they were and since the greatest percentage of them were single mothers attempting to become RNs and give their children possibilities of a good life, their success meant another generation might be raised in a similar environment making that the legacy education offered, rather than the often dismal and demeaning experience it is for our children.

What I saw was how one intelligent question, honestly answered, could change lives unimaginably. Know any questions like that which haunt or challenge you? Maybe it’s time for you to imagine what answering that question might do for you or those you love.


I write books that speak to such questions:

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN – What is it we do as parents that drives our children from us?

DYING TO KNOW – Is there not another path to health and well-being?

ACCIDENTS OF BIRTH Trilogy– What is the true nature of unconditional love? (to be published this fall)

I suspect I’ll never stop asking such questions and seeking the change they offer for myself and anyone else who’s willing to walk with me.


*Cognitive Domains: Knowledge (Facts), Analysis, Synthesis, Comprehension, Application, Evaluation

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  1. Oh Christina – you know I love this. Keep on asking those questions, there are many who stand behind you and the answers you have found!

    • Christina Carson

      I’m not sure I have a choice, but it is certainly satisfying sharing these thoughts with you. Thanks.

  2. I shared with a few educator friends. This is the most concise analyses of the educational process I have seen.

    • That would be analysis. Misspelling not a good idea on an article about education. Sorry.

      • Christina Carson

        Being educable is a fine trait in a teacher! And thanks for your comments, Jim. I loved teaching. It has the power to make people all they can be, but not the way we do it in this country. There was a phrase in a book I read on the history of American education I’ll never forget: “Two hundred years unhampered by progress.” Sad.

  3. My father was a Middle School/Jr. High Science teacher (and my mother taught remedial reading to elementary students, though she had no formal degree). Both would have LOVED your methods, particularly my father, who when he passed was lauded by an entire school system and students twenty-plus years beyond his teaching came to his service and/or wrote, credited him with teaching them more than just Science, but to think on their own.

    I had him twice, since we moved to Wyoming after just having him as my 7th-grade Science teacher in Iowa (in Wyoming he taught 6th THROUGH 8th, so I then had him as an 8th-grader, too!). Both times he insisted I call him “Mr. Guthrie”, and not “Dad”. He was always looking for new ways to approach education because he honestly loved every child in the room and wanted them to all have the same realizations about which you speak above. Brava, Christina! I wish he’d been here to read this with me.

    • Christina Carson

      Next to parenting, there is no more important job and no greater force for change than education. I’m so glad you experienced your father as dad and teacher because those who truly care as teachers or some of our greatest and most unsung heroes. It thrilled me to hear the response to your father’s passing. Thanks for taking the time to share that Rob. It was an amazing system I was introduced to, and you’re right I sure- your father would have gloried in it.

  4. Teaching people to think for themselves is the most important task educators should take on. My fondest memories of learning come from the teachers who helped my brain catch fire, not those who ‘taught to the test’. What a brilliant question, and what a gift you gave those students!

    • Christina Carson

      Oh, isn’t it ever. I had one teacher who set out to teach us to think. It was so exciting. It did make my home life difficult. My parents did not appreciate my new found logic and reason, but it changed my life for the better unimaginably.

  5. Christina, if only I’d had the brain to apply that way of thinking at home when my kids were small! And there’s only one teacher I remember from my entire school years who inspired such a love of the subject — English — that I’m still hooked. The others just all applied the ‘you need to learn it to pass the exams’ approach. What a waste of kids’ time and potential.

    • Christina Carson

      I couldn’t agree more, Alana. The frustration I felt at what could develop from an enlightened education versus what was actually offered made me truly sad. You can’t imagine how hard I campaigned to get even one other teacher in that college to join me in that approach. The problem is that the educational system in this country is rotten to the core. Because of the top end of administrators and rule makers, education rarely attracts the bright and the inspired. Then to add insult to injury, it pays a pauper’s wage. Sorry to hear it doesn’t sound much better in Australia.

Thoughtful comments are always welcome!


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