“Wait, what? and Life’s Other Essential Questions”

October 2017

a review by //
will austinFounder & CEO, Boston Schools Fund

Will Austin is the founder and CEO of the Boston Schools Fund, an organization that supports and funds the growth of high-quality, high-demand schools of all types. The Boston Schools Fund has set an ambitious goal: growing the number of spaces available in high-quality schools by 7,000 by 2020 and assuring that Boston will be the first city in the country to offer a high-quality school to every child.

“Wait, what? and Life’s Other Essential Questions”

By James E. Ryan, Dean, Harvard Graduate School of Education

How often do you think about the questions you ask? That question, not your answer, is the topic of Jim Ryan’s “Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions.”

As Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Ryan explains, he has an annual duty to say something profound at a commencement. His last graduation speech in June 2016 went viral, prompting him to both document and expand upon his remarks.

The book’s 144, large-font pages are about asking good questions. Drawing on his experience in law and education, Ryan highlights five types of questions that he considers most essential, and their power in driving better understanding, better problem solving and even better behavior. This comes at welcome time for the field of education, as it has become increasingly difficult to find common ground on policy decisions on the local, state and federal level.

The idea of good teachers asking good questions is old as Socrates, Ryan points out, and he supports this idea through a range of arguments, facts and powerful personal anecdotes. By the end, you know a lot about questioning, and quite a bit about the author’s remarkable life. “Wait, What?” is stimulating and entertaining.

There are important lessons here for educators. Ryan has deep technical skills and experience, at one time clerking for the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist. And, yet, he writes in a very accessible style. In education, we have a tendency to wear jargon as badges of honor. It is refreshing to see one of our field’s leaders take the time to distill complex ideas into simple prose. Smart and simple are not binary, as Mark Twain once joked. It takes longer to write something short.

Ryan’s writing is highly structured and consistent. He is adept at shifting tone from factual to anecdotal, from serious to humorous — to engage the reader. But this happens within a clear, familiar pattern from chapter to chapter, each one ending with a helpful summary. It turns out that “tell them what you are going say, tell them, and then tell them again” does not get old.

Ryan leaves the reader with a lot more than just questions. “Wait, What?” provides a memorable roadmap to navigate to your professional and personal life.

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