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 entirely different relationship between emotion and learning. She was illustrating how emotions guide learners to solve problems in math—a concept called skilled intuition.
Since then, I have constantly heard teachers in various workshops ask the leaders to explain an idea they had just explained, and I slowly realized that this sort of question commonly arises when people—adults or young students—are learning new concepts.
Of course, students also ask a question when they haven’t been paying attention, again just like adults at workshops. Our mind wanders when we are sitting and listening for long stretches or when we really aren’t particularly interested in the subject, even if we are trying our best to sustain interest. So, rather than reflecting stupidity, a question can be an expression of the understandable inner state of the listener—and a clue to the ineffectiveness of the teaching method.
Another question that appears stupid is the off-the-topic question. You are going along explaining concepts like osmosis or transitive verbs, and you use a sentence to illustrate your point: “The bus hit the dog. Hit is a transitive verb.” Janice’s hand shoots up. “Why don’t they have speed bumps in people’s neighborhoods as they do at school? That’s how my dog got killed.” Stupid? What’s stupid about a student’s making an emotional connection to something in the classroom? Perhaps we should look at the question as instructive: It provides some insight into what is missing from the lesson itself and into the depth of a learner’s need for some sort of meaningful connection to what she studies. I suppose it’s easier to dismiss Janice’s question as a sign of ADHD than to consider it on the boredom spectrum. The problem must be with the student, not with the lesson—certainly not with the whole system of schooling.
Or perhaps Janice’s question is interpreted as a third form of the stupid question: the deliberate attempt to derail a lesson—the sort of tactic that we attribute to the class clown. If, as researchers suggest, thinking occurs in the service of emotional/social goals, the question reveals something about the needs of the questioner (perhaps her motivation in relation to her classmates) and, again, suggests that the lesson itself is emotionally irrelevant to her.
Surprise, surprise. We see the same sort of behavior in adults, in teachers forced to attend professional development workshops that they find irrelevant to their needs. Some disaffected teachers quickly become workshop clowns, while others tune out through text messaging, reading newspapers, whispering with those in the next seat, or correcting homework. It’s amazing that these teachers fail to make the connection between their experiences as disaffected learners in these workshops and the student behaviors that upset them so much in their own classrooms.
Student questions are, indeed, rarely stupid. They are really quite revealing, and what they often reveal is that what is happening in the classroom doesn’t matter to them. So perhaps it is the teachers’ questions that are stupid—the failure of the questions to engage because they are rooted in what interests teachers rather than what interests students. Perhaps what is stupid is the failure of schools to encourage and allow students to explore genuine questions that they have.
And they do have them. They have all sorts of questions about the world, about themselves, about what things mean and how they work, about the future and the past, and other countries and governments and relationships. They could build an entire curriculum on their questions. They eagerly wrestle with issues and ideas that matter to them. One student told me he enjoyed an opportunity in an after-dinner forum to discuss race relations “because,” he said, “it challenged a side of my mind that classes usually cannot touch and because it allowed talking with my peers about an important issue.” What a stunning indictment of the classroom.
But schools know best. Schools know what’s important. So, instead of dealing with—or even discovering—their questions, schools force students to slog through the endless drudgery of repetitive worksheets and the tedium of tests like the SATs composed of cute questions designed to trick students, tests of trivial and obscure factual details (“to prove they read the assignment”), ESP tests/discussions to determine which students can read the teacher’s mind and come up with the answer the teacher wants to hear, tests demanding that students apply concepts they don’t yet understand or care about. So many questions, so little time.
The answer to the riddle is that there are so many stupid questions in schools because so many of us adults ask them.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Alden Blodget for Intrepid Ed New.