Stupid Questions | Alden Blodget | 6 Min Read

March 2, 2023

Here’s a riddle: If there are no stupid questions, why are so many of them asked in schools?

Most teachers, especially on the first day of class, when there’s still hope, assure students that there are no stupid questions. The assurance has become something of a pious mantra—a soothing politically correct lullaby that makes everyone feel good and creates a false sense of security. “Ah,” thinks the teacher, “my classroom is a safe environment.”

“Ahh,” says a student, hand raised, “what’s a stupid question?”

The teacher rolls his eyes, the other students laugh, and the year is underway.

Nothing seems to drive teachers crazier than to be asked stupid questions. In faculty meetings, in informal gripe sessions over lunch, and, occasionally, even in parent conferences, teachers often marvel at the amazing ability of Sam or Sarah to ask stupid questions that slow things down or reveal an inability to understand the simplest concepts.

However, when I look at some of the typical questions that teachers call stupid, I’m not sure the label is accurate. The one that most irritates teachers elicits the “I just explained that—why weren’t you listening” response. “Are you deaf?” I used to become as frustrated as my colleagues by this sort of question until I heard myself ask one at a workshop that I attended about the connection between learning and emotion. The workshop leader explained the connection using an illustration from a math lesson and I simply didn’t get it. Although I was paying close attention because I really wanted to understand the concept, the example made no sense to me. So I said, “The connection makes sense to me when I think about reading literature, but how does it work in a math class?” 

How embarrassing. It took me a moment to realize that she had just applied the concept to math. I hadn’t “heard” her because the illustration didn’t register in any sensible way in my brain. I had no conceptual hook on which to hang it. I expected (wanted) her to say something else, something that fit my preconception or understanding of this mind-stretching new insight in terms that would make sense in my experience of teaching English. I wanted the mathematical equivalent of an empathic response to literature. I wondered how you elicit an emotional response to a quadratic equation, but the workshop leader was explaining an…

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Alden Blodget

Veteran teacher and administrator Alden S. "Denny" Blodget is the author of "Learning, Schooling and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions." He also helped create the Annenberg Foundation's Neuroscience & the Classroom. He is the editor for, a free online resource focusing on issues affecting young people and the adults who work with them.