Wednesday, March 28, 2007

There's No Such Thing as a Stupid Question, Really?

Ever since I began teaching (26 years ago), I have heard hundred's of teachers, parents and administrators declare that there is no such thing as a stupid question. I even believed it at one time myself. But the longer I taught and the better I became at my craft, I realized that this statement just wasn't true. There is such a thing as a stupid question.

Now before you rush to get your pitchforks, ropes and torches to lynch me for being a heretic, let me explain my position. After years of teaching and working in the classroom, I have come across students, parents and even teachers who use "there's no such thing as a stupid question" as a justification for opening their mouth and speaking without thinking. Yes, we want to encourage people to not be afraid to ask questions but not at the expense of thinking first. A question that is asked without thinking first is a stupid question.

"Well, what is a stupid question?", you might ask.

A stupid question has many forms. One of the most common stupid questions is the one that asks about something that was just discussed. This shows that person asking isn't polite enough to pay attention to the speaker and should remain silent rather than reveal their rudeness.

Another type of stupid question is the one that is asked in order to get the speaker off task. It is not meant to increase one's knowledge or to clarify a misunderstanding; it has one purpose only and that is to get the speaker off task and away from the subject at hand. This is not only a stupid question but a waste of time.

Then there is the question that could have been answered by the person asking the question, but they are so lazy that they ask rather than look up the answer themselves. The classic form for this type of question is when a student asks what is the homework assignment when they have been given all of the assignments ahead of time. All this question does is confirm that the inquirer is lazy.

So, what should be done about stupid questions?

You should make people aware of them. I take the time to demonstrate to my students and those whom I lecture that there are stupid questions and we should avoid them at all costs. I then give them examples of some popular stupid questions to prevent them from committing such a faux pas.

You are probably thinking that this would prevent my students from asking questions, but that isn't the case. My students ask questions regularly and without fear. They understand what a stupid question is and avoid it. This saves time and keeps us on task. If you wish to increase the frequency in which your audience asks questions verbally reward the inquirer with positive reinforcement. Rewarding them for asking a good question will increase the number of questions asked and the question will be well thought out. Doing this will create great discussions and make your talks more interesting.

Let's be aware that there really are stupid questions and work together to eliminate them from our classrooms, workplace or lecture halls.

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