Any questions??

If we want our kids to become “lifelong learners,” one of the most important skills we can teach them is how to ask questions.

Once you leave your formal education, the world isn’t going to spoon feed you information anymore. You actually have to find your own answers, whether it’s “Where is the bathroom?” or “Should I open an IRA before paying off my student debt?”

Even in college, you’re expected to seek out the professor if you didn’t understand the lecture — they won’t come to you.

But how do we get teenagers to learn this skill in an atmosphere where asking questions makes you feel stupid, not smart?

As Eric Toshalis writes in Make Me, when teachers ask “Any questions?”, what students hear is: “Who would like to demonstrate that they are the dumb one by broadcasting their confusion or misunderstanding with their raised hand so everyone can see it?”

Dan Ariely, in The Upside of Irrationality, says essentially the same thing: We know when we are confused, but when we look around the room and see that no one else is asking questions, we assume they get it. We don’t realize they’re all just as inhibited as us.

I’ve tried a lot of different strategies to get kids to voice their questions in class. One professor told me to ask “What are your questions?” rather than “Do you have any questions?”, but the semantic change didn’t make much difference. Others have suggested longer wait times, but a nervous student usually doesn’t get braver after a minute of silence.

Earlier this year, I set up a Google form students could use to email me anonymous questions during class — a virtual question jar. Almost no one used it.

And then, this past week, I stumbled onto a possible strategy.

The previous day, when I was teaching GDP calculations, I had run short on time. The students had a brief homework assignment that included some material we hadn’t discussed in class — like the difference between gross and net investment — and I was going to start class by explaining it.

On impulse, I decided instead to say, “Look, there was some stuff on that homework that we didn’t talk about, so you probably have questions….”

Much to my surprise, hands shot up. It was like I had released them from a spell.

If I hadn’t taught it, they reasoned, then they weren’t stupid not to know it already. The questions spilled out, some over the topics we hadn’t covered and some on topics we had. If only class could be like that every day!

It seems that no matter how often I assure my students that questions are good (and indicate that you are learning), the stigma against asking questions on anything that was already taught is overpowering.

So perhaps the solution is leave some intentional gaps — and encourage students to find them and ask about them. Or pretend there were gaps, even if there weren’t.

I think this experience could explain why problem-based learning, where students are given a problem to solve and need to seek out the background, tools and resources to solve it themselves, is so powerful. It makes it all right to ask questions.

That’s something I’m hoping to do more of in the near future.

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