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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

20 Questions

What the Game Shows

We were driving back from Washington the other day and it was about two and half hours into the trip. My 5 and 9 year olds sons had watched a movie but were getting restless. The younger one suddenly claimed that he was starving and couldn’t wait a second to eat. We’d run out of snacks, and I didn’t want to stop just then, and so — pretty much in desperation — I suggested a game of 20 questions. Not only did the game keep the kids occupied for the hour and half until we reached home, I learned a great day — and saw what is wonderful about the game.
     As we played I got a pure demonstration of how my kids think — how they analyze problems, how they categorize the universe and break it into parts. The game felt like a psychological experiment, a kind of rorshach test revealing the structure of their minds. And in its way, it is a perfect model of non-fiction thinking, in science or social science: there is information you want but don’t have, what set of steps will bring you to that, and only that, information in the quickest and most accurate way? The game shows the value of guessing as a way to begin knowing. Venturing a try, seeing if it works or doesn’t, then giving it another go if it doesn’t work out. And yet that is so the opposite teaching to a test. The exciting part of the game not the answer but the process — seeing those excited minds in action.
      Surely every good teachers knows the value of asking questions and trying to steer kids towards discovering answers themselves. But I wonder if this very simple games model might sometimes to work to spark up lessons even on straightforward fact — create a game in which the kids have to winkle the fact out of the teacher, rather than the teacher drumming the fact into the students. Have any of you tried that? How well does it work?