Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

home >> Teaching and Learning >> Five questions to change your life
posted on July 27, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
Five questions to change your life

This assignment
is completely optional.
It is
the most powerfully effective way I
have discovered to empower intellectual
growth but would be worthless if taken lightly.
It is an interactive dialogue between us that
invites you to examine, communicate, and
transform how you operate at success-
ively deeper and more signifi-
cant levels.

responses to the following
5 questions under a title page that
includes at least your name and the date.
Each time you submit the assignment attach all
previous submissions with the most recent on top.
Begin each response on a separate page. Clearly
indicate which questions responses address.
Type single-spaced with wide margins,
single sided.  Use all of your
writing skills. 

The depth and
quality of writing are much more
important than quantity, but it would be
difficult to express anything of value in less
than a solid paragraph. 
Your responses
can be as long as they need to be
and you can submit them as
often as you want.

Use this exercise as
a way to deepen your appreciation
of yourself as a learner, to express that in
writing, and to get feedback from us about it.
We will read and comment on what you write, so
leave plenty of room for comments (wide margins
and single side).
If our comments trigger responses
that can’t wait, that’s great.  Don’t wait.  Do it
again while the impulse is hot. 
Put every-
thing you have into this assignment.  It
can dramatically and permanently
transform what education is
for you,



What are the best
things about this course so far,
in terms of your intellectual development
and growth of your awareness of human
ecology?  What are the most important
ways in which this course has
facilitated your growth
in these areas?

What are the worst
things about this course so far in
terms of your intellectual development
and growth of your awareness of human
ecology? What are the most important
ways in which this course has failed
to facilitate your growth
in these areas?

What have been your
most important contributions

so far in this course to your intellectual
development and growth of your
awareness of human ecology?

Discuss the most
important factors that currently
your intellectual development and
growth of your awareness of human ecology.
What keeps you from achieving even more
than you already have in them?

What mark
do you
intend to receive in this course?
What is your responsibility to see
that you receive this mark?
What is ours?

I developed
this assignment in 1969
when I was a PhD student in ecology
at Oregon.
Carlos Galindo and I perfected it
in a course for non-scientists on Human Ecology
at UBC. 
I’ve used it in several kinds of courses since,
fully for those who tried it, sometimes dramatically.
The depth and power of students’ responses astounded me
and the development they exhibited through the experi-
ence impressed me. 
Those things underline the idea
that the deepest, most important learning is
metacognitive and reflective, and is
personally transformative.

One student produced
about 160 pages of typing in all,
with voluminous written comments by
Galindo and me each time.  This was only a
small part of the work she did in the course,
but she claimed that it was the core. 
and I both learned to write, almost
literally, from that student.

As I hinted above, engaging
in this exercise is a powerful stimulus for
intellectual growth, or the ability to know and
understand things. 
That is one of its benefits and
that benefit is transferable to many other situations,
in many other places and times.
Getting better at
knowing and understanding one kind of thing

helps later to learn other kinds of things,

especially if they are similar
in some way.

Another benefit
flows from the fact
that the
exercise is about
what all courses are
learning the ‘stuff’ of some discipline,
learning to learn it, and hopefully learning to
love at least some part of it. 
In this case and all
‘stuff’ includes not only what we know,
how we know it, how we come to know
think about it and speak about it, how
we know we know it,
what we will or
won’t believe about it
and so on,
almost ad infinitum.

‘Stuff’ does include
all that.  But
even if all the assign-
ment did was ‘force’ students
to express them-
selves as
active learners, it would help them learn
the material. 
Much more important than any of that
is that it helps them see
that they, themselves, are
for what, how, how much, and how
well they learn,
how long they remember it,
and what they learn about how they
learn while they’re learning it.

The first UBC
students were science
outsiders whose academic homes
were in Arts, Humanities, or Elsewhere.
they had put off their science until the last
possible instant
and couldn’t graduate without
taking some science
and ended up in my course.
Some students knew they knew everything worth
about Human Ecology coming in and
some thought they knew nothing.  Both were
wrong.  V
irtually none of them had even a
about science as a way of
learning things.

Without saying
so directly, the exercise helped
those who “knew” that they knew nothing,
or habitually suspected so, to see that they were
wrong about that – –
that they could learn scientific
material and think, speak, and write scientifically.
Those who thought they knew everything,
usually young males, learned
similar lessons from
the work. 

It helped all
students realize that capabil-
ities they developed in their own disciplines
were helping them in science, and that develop-
transferable  skills  in science would help them
everywhere else. 
It helped them integrate
their knowledge and their

Through years
of engaging in this process
with students, Galindo, I, and others later,
noticed some interesting patterns.

For a surprising
number of students, the best and
worst aspects
were the same.  It was more
surprising  that few of them realized until later that they
had been bragging and complaining about the
same things! 
It was hilarious, actually,
especially since both arguments
were so strong.

It was
fascinating to see how
individuals’ responses evolved over
time, particularly in relation to what was
happening with
the second pair of questions at
the same time, about personal contributions and
blockages to growth. 
Here are my two favourite
examples of that pattern. This pair of com-
plaints also appeared often in student
evaluations of my other courses.


“I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”

“You never tell us what to do.”


“You never tell us what to learn.”
“I’ve never learned so much in my life.”


Some students
seemed not to understand
at first what it means to “intend”
to receive a certain mark in a course, or to
intend to do anything, really. 
They wrote as
if they thought their own volition as active
learners had no bearing on what they
learned.  But,
not yet seeing them-
selves that way, how could they
think otherwise?  

Good grades take
hard work.  That’s a no-brainer
and everybody knows it. 
But hard work
and smart work are not the same. 
The exercise
helped them discover the difference, particularly in
response to comments we made on their writing.
In an important sense, it made them smarter
and helped them direct their learning
more effectively.


Some students
conflated intentions with hopes,
as the following pair of responses to Questions
3 and 4  illustrates.
Again, individuals often didn’t
seem aware at first of a causal connection between
their own behaviour and the consequences of that
behaviour. Some were annoyed that we would
ask them to comment on how we would judge
them, as if that were all our affair
and none of their own.


“I’m hoping for a high grade.”
“I’m not doing anything
to make it happen.”


When students
expressed pairs of statements
like these as complete sentences, after
they realized they’d paired them, they usually
used ‘but’ to conjoin them.  That in itself
was revealing and opened

“I’m not but I hope.”

“I never but you never.
“You never but I’ve never.

Usually in that kind of case, it would be more
accurate, more open, and more direct to say


I’m not and I never,
whether or not you ever,
I’m hoping for a miracle.”


patterns like that

helped us respond more deeply
and effectively and to coach students
in their effort to make good on what
emerged in the exercise as real
possibilities that they could
make come true.

One of
the more interesting
patterns that emerged was that
for some students, the best aspects of the
course and their biggest blockages to growth
were the same.  That made no sense to us at
first glance, especially without the
specifics that fleshed it out.

consider a student who
already knows a lot about Human
Ecology coming in and is proud of  (usually
his) ability to demonstrate that knowledge
the course cramps his style.  He’s used to demonstrat-
ing knowledge and understanding, not interacting with
others to create them or acknowledging, embracing, and
bragging about his own ignorance.  That one issue could
easily be his greatest opportunity, challenge, sense of
accomplishment, AND blockage, all at the same
.  It was wonderful to watch it happen.

An important
outcome of these exchanges
was that although many students were
quite aware of significant contributions they had
made to their own growth and considered that aspect
of the course the best, they still felt blocked, and they were
blocked, by their own poor attitudes about their ability.
This, like most of the other cases, is a classic
example of
cognitive dissonance.


“I am performing
at this level
but I am incapable
of performing at this level.”

One of our most
important tasks in commenting on
these kinds of responses, and on others, was to
help students see pairs of statements like these
as dissonant:
How could both be true?

When we used the Continuing
Assignment in any course, my assistant
and I both read and commented on all responses
by all students to all questions, sometimes at length, and
returned them promptly.  We often commented on each other’s
comments as well. 
It helped handle the load that there was no
‘due date’, so we tended to receive submissions one or a few
at a time and could get them right back. 
Perhaps most
surprisingly of all, nearly all students in some courses
participated fully in this time-consuming
exercise that carried no credit
or brownie points.

Our intention was not
to teach students anything about
themselves in commenting, but to help
them discover it for themselves. 
In particular,
we tried to help them identify, acknowledge, and
resolve paradoxes like
“How can my best and worst
things be the same?” 
Since most students didn’t see the
relationships among questions at first and we didn’t
tell them, we needed to help them to see, feel, and
take advantage of that depth to improve
their learning process and keep
tuning it forever.

The image
accompanying this story
illustrates an important feature
of the assignment, which is both iterative
and recursive.  It is repetitive in that students
responded to the same questions repeatedly, and
self-referential in that the process itself  evolved with
The image features my Recursion sculptures
in serpentine and travertine. Carving them helped me
explore self-referential, iterative processes in learning.
Using those two sculptures to illustrate, I wrote
about those concepts at length in
The Notion
of Creativity
in relation to science,
art, and learning.

When I took an
Evelyn Wood
Reading Dynamics
course in 1967,
our performance increased
so fast that everyone in the course ran up against
“I am performing at this level but I am unable
to perform at this level,”
which blocked our progress.
I started as such a slow reader that I was reading 4 to 6
times faster than I’d ever read when I hit that wall of dis-
belief  in the third week, and everyone hit it at about
the same time.  Of course the course was prepar-
ed for that and proved to us that we
were really doing the im-

With the same
very simple test, they scrambled
our notions of  what reading is all about.
But that is
another story. That $500 course
was one of the best investments I ever
made in my


Edited May 2022.

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