Are You a Provocative Educator?

By | 2016-10-29T11:36:22+00:00 January 31st, 2013|

provocative questions

“Why is this moment – right now, this very breath – important?”

I can still remember my professor staring at me, her arms folded, waiting for my answer.  I was in a hall on the stage with a piano behind me and my entire class in front of me.  Everyone was staring at me and I turned beet red.  I was embarrassed.  I had worked on my technique all week, memorized each line, and practiced my pronunciation of the german words until they were perfect.  But I hadn’t prepared for this question.

“Because her love is dying.” I answered meekly.

My teacher didn’t move, but her eyes showed she was disappointed in my answer.

“Why is this moment important to YOU?”


“Come on, Susan.  Dig deeper.  It’s not about the right answer.  What does this line, this moment, mean to you as you stand there in front of us taking up our time?”

One of the hardest parts about my undergraduate college experience was any time I had to produce music.  Now, being that I went to a music conservatory, majored in music education, had a voice principal, a piano minor and was required to perform on some level every day, you can imagine how difficult those 4 years were for me.  And it wasn’t the production itself that was hard.  It was the process that I had to use to get there.  Every time I was in choir, or a voice lesson, or a conducting class, my teachers were always pushing me to go deeper.  To find the emotion or the story or the purpose of every.single.note.  It’s a draining experience.

It’s also the very best opportunity to experience tremendous learning that you could possibly have.

The exchange above was not a singular event.  In almost every class I attended that had anything to do with artistic production, I was challenged.  I was asked provocative questions that made me stop and think.  There were no right or wrong answers.  There was only me, my thoughts, and discovering the way I wanted to express them so that the world of listeners could understand them with every sense available to them.

Artists do this all the time.  They challenge the world around them; ask interesting questions; force us to re-examine the obvious to find the hidden treasure.  Artists can teach us a lot about ourselves and how we interact in the world together.  We need this kind of teaching in every single classroom – we need teachers as artists who ask questions that force us to probe deeper.  We need provocative educators who are unafraid and unashamed to push their students to go beyond the “right answer” and to find their OWN answer.

Becoming a provocative educator is essential if we want our students to succeed in a global economy.  No longer is it enough to have information stored in your brain, now you must be able to manipulate it.  We are all being required to innovate, shape and change the status quo but if we do not prepare our students for this reality, they will never have the capacity to thrive in the 21st century.  By asking them to fill out a worksheet with 40 math problems, or to conjugate verbs, we are simply providing them with meaningless information.  We must instead teach our students how to think, how to work through something and to ask interesting questions themselves so that they can find their personal answers and express them in new and meaningful ways.  We must all become teaching artists.

Are you a provocative educator?  If not, the time has come.  Look for deeper questions, challenge your students and provide them with the tools to do the same.  Only then can we begin to truly prepare our students for the questions they will never see coming from a future we cannot possibly imagine.


About the Author:

Susan Riley is the founder and President of She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, Common Core State Standards, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and Arts and the Common Core. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan
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