Wait, What? and Other Essential Questions for teacher teams

How six questions can help professional learning communities of teachers organise their collaborative work inside the classroom and staff room, and help all of us to shape our lives.

May 18, 2018 | Meghan Lockwood

Wait, what? I wonder...students at Mill Park Secondary College, Melbourne.


Readers may have seen the viral YouTube sensation that was James E. Ryan’s 2016 commencement speech at Harvard Graduate School of Education. In this speech, which he later adapted into a book[1], Ryan argues that there are five essential questions in life:

  1. Wait, what?
  2. I wonder?
  3. Couldn’t we at least?
  4. How can I help?
  5. What truly matters?

And a bonus question, adapted from a short poem written by Raymond Carver near the end of his life: And did you get what you wanted, even so?

Ryan illustrates the importance of these questions in his speech and book with examples from education and incredibly touching anecdotes from his own life. I read the book in one sitting over the Christmas holiday last year. It made me laugh, cry, and feel very fortunate to have gotten to know Dean Ryan while I was a student at Harvard Ed School. He is an inspiring leader.

In the several months since I read the book, the questions keep coming back to me, both at home and at work. I have started to wonder (there’s one of the questions again) how these questions might apply to some most important work we do as teachers: collaborating in professional learning communities (PLCs), so I thought I would share some thoughts in hopes they might be useful for other educators.

  1. Wait, what?

According to Ryan, this question seeks clarification, to ensure that you truly understand what your colleague is saying or what you see in student data before making a decision or advocating for or against something. I know that sometimes when I am in a meeting, I am spending so much energy mentally composing the next point I want to make that I only half-listen to what my colleagues are saying. This question is a reminder to take the time to listen and make sure we understand what we’re hearing. Otherwise, we’re missing out on a huge benefit collaborating with colleagues: learning from others’ perspectives.

  1. I wonder?

Ryan argues that asking, ‘I wonder why’ is a way of staying curious about the world, while ‘I wonder if’ is a way to think about how you might improve the world. I like these questions in the context of a PLC because they remind us that we don’t know everything that we need to know right now. If we notice our Year 3 NAPLAN maths scores were down last year, our temptation might be to jump to conclusions about a) why they went down and b) what to do to ‘fix’ them this year. With only a score report in front of us, drawing those conclusions is not only impossible, but also misguided. Even putting aside the question of whether the differences in scores was large enough to be meaningful, and the fact that completely different groups of students took the Year 3 NAPLAN in 2016 and 2017, a score report simply does not give us enough data to know why students may be struggling and what to do about it. Asking ‘I wonder’ prompts us to use large-scale data sets to generate questions for future inquiry that we can then dig into with student-level data and data about our teaching practice.[2]

  1. Couldn’t we at least?

This question helps us get unstuck, says Ryan. When problems seem daunting and we start to feel overwhelmed with everything that we can’t do to solve a problem, this question prompts us to remember what is in our power and think about what we might do to move a process or project forward.

Looking at student work together in a PLC can feel discouraging. Often, we notice that students are struggling to learn certain skills that we have been trying hard to teach them. We may suspect that many of our students are struggling due to factors out of our control, such as poverty or difficult home circumstances. Asking, ‘Couldn’t we at least?’ helps us remember that we do have control over the learning experiences that we design for our students, and that if we work together to improve our teaching, we can see the results in student learning.

  1. How can I help?

According to Ryan, this question helps us be aware of the saviour complex and bring humility as we ask for direction from those we are serving. On PLCs, is easy to overlook a powerful source of data and direction about how to improve student learning: asking students about their learning. The question, ‘How can I help?’ reminds us to seek student input to inform our PLCs’ work. When we work together to hone in on a problem of practice to address together, we can ask students what challenges them most about a certain skill or academic task. When we test new instructional strategies to try to tackle a problem of practice, let’s ask students how the new teaching approach went and how it could be improved.

  1. What truly matters?

Asking, ‘What truly matters?’ can help us step back from a discussion and gain perspective on why we are doing the work we’re doing. If we’re in a disagreement, we can remind ourselves that we all chose to be educators because we care about students and want to see them thrive. If we are getting caught up on when we are going to implement the last step of an action plan, this question can remind us that what is important is that we have succeeded in developing 95 per cent of a plan that we are excited about and committed to implementing together for the benefit of our students. Maybe we can set aside time on an agenda three weeks from now to schedule that last step.

Another situation in which asking, ‘What truly matters?’ can help is in setting student learning targets. It is very difficult to know how high to set student learning targets for an improvement cycle. It is impossible to predict the future and know how effective a new instructional strategy you’re trying is going to be. Nevertheless, it is important to set an ambitious target that is worthy of the team’s efforts and that would indicate meaningful improvements in student learning. Asking ‘what truly matters?’ can help us clarify why we’re doing what we’re doing and what meaningful improvement could look like.

Bonus question: And did you get what you wanted, even so?

When we set ambitious goals, we often don’t meet them. If your PLC’s problem of practice were easy to solve, you probably would have solved it already. As frustrating as it can be to feel that your team has not met its goals, it is important reflect on what you’ve learned, and  continue to persevere until you do see the outcomes you hoped to see. Failing to meet your target might mean that you set a challenging target and that you have high expectations for your students, both of which are good things.

It’s important, however, to use this bonus question as a reminder to acknowledge the successes that you did encounter during your inquiry cycle. Although you will likely need to keep persevering through multiple inquiry cycles to start to see the student learning gains you’re hoping to see, the end of a cycle is a good time to celebrate the successes you have had in your PLC. Have you adopted new meeting structures and protocols that help you work more effectively as a team? Have you learned something new about how students learn from watching your colleagues teach? Have you built stronger relationships with your students by asking for their input into your teaching? Has your work led to any other positive results, even and especially those that you weren’t expecting?

The last two words of the bonus question are key: “And did you get what you wanted, even so?” Ryan explains that “even so” acknowledges that life rarely turns out the way we expect. The same is surely true for PLCs. Nonetheless, when we put our best effort into working and learning together, we are likely to get at least some of what we wanted: a rich learning experience for us and our colleagues, and improved teaching and learning for all our students, even so.

Dr Meghan Lockwood is a Manager at Learning First, where she focuses on designing and evaluating teacher professional learning programs. A former teacher, she is a certified coach in Harvard’s Data Wise Improvement Process.

Full citation:

Ryan, J. E. (2017) Wait, what? and life’s other essential questions (First edition.). New York, NY: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

[1] Ryan, 2017

[2] For more information about how to engage in an inquiry cycle to use assessment results to improve teaching and learning, see: Boudett, K. P., City, E. A., & Murnane, R. J. (2013). Data wise: A step by step guide to using assessment results to improve teaching and learning. Harvard Education Press. 8 Story Street First Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138.