Thought Provocations: The Teacher as Provocateur

By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE. Recently I wrote a provoking post about provocations that has continued to stimulate thought on the role/image of the teacher. As provocateurs, teachers are in a position not to make learning “smooth or easy for children, but rather to stimulate it” by making it “more complex, involving and arousing” (Edwards, Forman & Gandini, 1998, p. 184). It is not an image of the teacher as all knowing. It is an evolved and evolving view of the teacher.

[W]e must abandon our idea of a static, knowable educator and move on to a view of an educator in a state of constant change and becoming. The role of the educator shifts from a communicator of knowledge to a listener, provocateur, documenter, and negotiator of meaning. (Pacini-Ketchabaw, Kocher, Sanchez & Chan, 2009, p. 103)

The concept of provocations has the potential to provoke the shift to teacher as provocateur. Provocations if seen as a pedagogy will go beyond the pretty table set ups to be considered as challenges to children. Reggio Emilia teachers see themselves as provocateurs. They see themselves as the creators of discontinuous or discrepant experiences, and problems for children, to be solved (New, 1990). The role of the teacher as a provocateur is to stimulate frustration and create cognitive conflict. I believe in the capacity of children to respond to invitations that encourage them to think and create in a divergent way, and to be open to mental conflict that a provocation can bring. This is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a theory in social psychology. It refers to the mental conflict that occurs when a person’s behaviours and beliefs do not align. I was in a state of mental conflict recently when provoked by a comment on my last post about provocations. To be provoked and to be in conflict are disturbing and uncomfortable concepts. The comment challenged me to consider the importance of creating conflict-rich environments. I think it is important to embrace the disturbing and the uncomfortable as they are the impetus for change. Thank you, Susan Harris MacKay from the inspiring Opal School for your thought-provoking comment.

I appreciate these thoughts, Diane, and your willingness to question language and the intention and meaning held by that language as it plays out in decisions and practice. These are not things we should get complacent about. We need to continually ask about and check assumptions and clarify ideas and revisit the gap that persists between what we say and what we mean. When I first heard the word, “provocation,” though I can’t remember where anymore — I do remember the feeling it gave me. It so accurately captured the energy I wanted exchanges in school to have. I thought, “Yes! School should be full of provocation – always striving to keep us fully awake — expecting to notice things we haven’t before so we can ask new questions and imagine new possibilities.” I hope it goes without saying that is as much for the adults as it is for the children — but I’ll say it, anyway. It is. In the years since, I’ve been disappointed, sometimes, by the reaction others have to that word. I’ve learned that people who perhaps more generally don’t like to be provoked themselves, don’t like the word associated with the classroom. I’ve had people ask me, “That’s not really what you mean, right?” Similarly, I’ve had people ask me if I really mean “conflict” when I speak about the value of a “conflict-rich” environment. And the answer is, “yes.” From my perspective, “yes.” It is my intention to provoke by using the words, “provoke” and “conflict?” Maybe. Probably. So, when Tiziana Filippini and I talked about the word, “provocation.” and she said that there was no real, direct translation for that word from Italian, and that the word “proposal” was more closely aligned to what they meant by “progettazione,” I was undeterred. I realized we were likely trying to describe different things — with different meaning and intent. And so, I will continue to argue for the use of the word, “provocation,” but only as it means, really, to provoke and encourage teachers to be fearlessly provocative and doggedly curious. I hope teachers will use their own imagination and curiosity to create environments and experiences that invite children to play, as they intentionally provoke all involved to think and see and wonder things they haven’t before. In this sense, teachers take responsibility to prepare aesthetically rewarding environments that engage all the senses in order to observe children at play while listening closely to what they say. It isn’t a provocation if it isn’t intended to provoke new questions, new ideas, and new possibilities for everyone. So, I hope teachers will create beauty and order and ask big questions — but most of all for the purpose of provoking themselves towards an ever-greater image of the child, and of their own work as researchers.

To provoke with intention requires careful listening to children. To provoke new questions, ideas and possibilities the teacher acts as provocateur using thoughtful questions. In dialogue with children, teachers propose, ask questions, pose problems and perhaps, play the “devil’s advocate”. To play the devil’s advocate is to make a case for a position for the sake of argument or mental conflict. To be a provocateur is to ask children thought-provoking questions that will help them consider multiple perspectives. Thought-provoking questions prove that there are more than just two categories of questions to ask children. Those of us who have studied early childhood education and/or have taught early childhood education as I have may have been trained to believe that there are only two types of questions to choose from when speaking with children, open-ended or close-ended. I appreciate the challenge to consider another type – thought-provoking! Beverlie Dietze and I wrote about these two common types of questions that we use when conversing with children in our book, Playing and Learning in Early Childhood Education and proposed the additional use of cognitively challenging or thought-provoking questions.

Closed Questions:

  • Require a nonverbal response or a one- or two-word answer from children
  • Tend to have right or wrong answers
  • Are ones to which adults already know the answers
  • Require a “quick” response
  • Focus on facts and similarity in thinking
  • Ask for information and focus on labelling or naming
  • Require the child to recall something from memory

Open-Ended Questions:

  • Promote multi-word, multi-phrase responses from children
  • Have more than one correct answer
  • Are questions to which adults do not know what children’s answers might be
  • Allow children time to formulate and collect their thoughts
  • Focus on ideas and originality in thinking
  • Ask for reasoning
  • Focus on thinking and problem solving
  • Require the children to use their imagination

I remember being observed by a professor during practicum when I was an early childhood education student. In my mind during this nerve-wracking experience, I kept reminding myself not to ask children closed-ended questions for fear of receiving a bad grade. The result was that my nerves took over and I became very quiet. The feedback that followed critiqued my performance and questioned why I was so different with children when in class, with my peers, I was talkative. When the tables were turned and I became the professor that observed students in their practicums, I encouraged natural conversations where it was acceptable, in the context of back-and-forth dialogue, to ask a closed question. I did not want my students to be intimated in their dialogue. I wanted them to have natural and authentic and deep conversations with children. I suggested that they focus on asking children cognitively challenging or thought-provoking questions. As we wrote in Playing and Learning in Early Childhood Education,

Instead of asking a child, “What shape is the structure?” ask the child to tell you what the structure is. When the child replies that it is “a house,” ask, “Who lives in the house?” When a child holds up a shell to an ear, the conversation is in jeopardy of ending when closed questions are asked, such as, “What do you hear?” Continue the conversation by provoking children’s thinking, such as by asking, “How did the sound of the ocean get into the shell?” These types of questions challenge children to think deeply. When you test children’s knowledge and ask questions such as “What colour is it?” or “What shape is it?” children will have their comfort reduced in the environment. They will feel as though they are always being tested. (Dietze & Kashin, 2019)

According to Test, Cunningham and Lee (2010), when teachers ask thought-provoking questions, children are encouraged to use higher-level thinking skills such as inference, prediction, and interpretation. When thought-provoking questions are asked during play experiences, teachers are scaffolding children’s learning, and thus fostering cognitive development. Thought-provoking questions ignite curiosity and can lead to next steps, propelling the cycle of inquiry. These questions may create a sense of discomfort or even conflict, but this not knowing, or uncertainty may lead to the ideas firmly taking hold.


4 thoughts on “Thought Provocations: The Teacher as Provocateur

  1. I am inspired by the information presented here.
    The comparison between provocation and proposal is intriguing. Provocation seems more assertive. Proposal seems more of a gentle invitation, whereas provocation seems more of a challenge. This speaks to me as an educator who enjoys a push every now and then.

    In an earlier post you challenged my thinking to consider what exactly is a provocation? Something that provokes new questions, new ideas, and new possibilities. This to me, is enlightening and self-affirming. It is time to get rid of the “samples” that are used as “suggestions” for what can be done with materials. Let the materials provoke the children. Let the children’s creativity provoke others. Let their Individual works create mental discomfort in an effort to have more growth and learning.

    The thought that closed ended questions lead to a sense of always being tested in the environment also speaks to me. In a kindergarten classroom, there can be a feeling that there needs to be some sort of formal assessment, especially around literacy and mathematics. Can we let this go? Can we as educators challenge ourselves to put the checklists aside, and discover the learning without creating an environment of testing? To do so, I think we need to be confident in the observation and documentation strategies used in early childhood education. I choose to see this as a provocation for educators.

    Thank you for your article. I feel provoked to step out of my own comfort zone and create more conflict in my environment in an effort to enhance learning.

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  2. Thank you Diane for once again bringing us to the brink of critical thinking and then asking us to consider. Questions have long been the domain of educators and I often wonder if we value the child’s questions. Within the context of learning and perhaps everyday life I wonder if we deeply consider the child’s questions as a gateway to learning and more importantly a gateway to continuously considering the child’s rights to access one’s needs including access to curriculum.
    Cognitive dissonance should not only be the place holder of knowledge for adults to impart knowledge as Rousseau might maintain but a place of wonder for adults to critically reflect. Critical reflection asks the person who identifies as a learner to consider the possibilities through multiple lenses. I believe it is through lenses of learning and within ones state of being interruptions to and about thinking presents us with possibilities to consider other perspectives and therein lies the possibilities to find meaning.

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  3. Working outdoors with children, we don’t set up provocations on beautifully displayed tables. We don’t have “stuff”. We have used this approach of conversations, mutual discoveries, challenges and nudging children’s comfort zones a little. The mentoring relationships we cultivate with children aims to develop mutual trust so mostly children will feel safe to take a risk with their learning.

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  4. Diane, another engaging post! I am thinking about “inference, prediction and interpretation “. I wonder if I developed these skills in early childhood? From my parents? My teachers? I am so thankful that I consider these some of my strengths as they certainly fuel my curiosity! Cognitive dissonance however, makes me uncomfortable at times but it has always pushed me forward my critical friend! I’m thankful for you and your depth of thinking.


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