Yes, there are dumb questions

Teachers often tell students there is “no such thing as a dumb question,” but that’s not true. There are plenty of dumb questions, and we ask them as often as we answer them.

Here are some dumb questions teachers ask:

Do you understand?

Students say yes, not knowing what they don’t know.

Why didn’t you do your assignment?

Two options: They forgot, or they felt they had something more important to do. Which answer do you want to hear?

Do you have any questions?

You’re asking students to announce, in public, that they don’t get it.  Unless you have created an exceptionally safe class environment (or teach elementary school), you won’t get many takers.

We also ask lots of mediocre questions — questions that aren’t exactly dumb, but that don’t serve to stimulate deep thinking in our students. Routine, boring questions at the low end of Bloom’s taxonomy are a lost opportunity for learning, and they turn kids off.

Let’s say I am teaching the First Amendment in a U.S. Government class. Mediocre questions include:

When was the Bill of Rights added to the Constitution?

Which six freedoms are protected by the First Amendment?

Whose speech was protected in the NYT v. Sullivan case?

These questions aren’t awful, but they presume that the students’ main task is to commit facts to memory. They are easy questions to ask, and we can use them to judge whether students have done an assigned reading or paid attention in class, but that’s as far as they go.

What I want students to do is think deeply about the First Amendment, to consider the kinds of choices it forces us to make, to experience the freedom as well as some of the negative implications. For that, I need complex questions. These questions take time to develop, and they may go through many revisions before I get them right.

I used to ask students: “Should there be any limits to free speech?” That question didn’t work. So I revised it: “What is something you think people shouldn’t be allowed to say?” That was better, but if it still didn’t work, I provided examples to provoke more thinking:

Should a newspaper be allowed to call someone guilty of a crime before trial?

Should an individual be able to post threats against the president on Facebook?

Should students be able to wear T-shirts with the Confederate flag to school?

Who draws the line, and where should we draw it?

Developing meaningful questions isn’t just part of teaching — it is essential to teaching.

Too often, teachers reserve higher-level thinking questions for AP and Honors students, assuming other students need to focus on facts before moving on to critical thinking. But a mundane focus on facts alienates students. Not only do thoughtful questions engage student intellectually, but they show students that we value them as independent thinkers.

Questioning is also essential to learning. We want students to learn to develop their own questions – and a habit of inquiry – so we need to model this for them.

The most important questions, the kind we want students to ask, never have easy answers. How are humans impacting the global atmosphere? How can we reduce racial injustice in our criminal justice system? What kinds of policies will reduce tension in the Middle East?

We need to stop asking dumb questions and reduce our reliance on mediocre questions. Questions are the most valuable teaching tool we have, and we can’t afford to waste them.