Most teachers encourage their students to ask questions. We want them to have enquiring minds, we want them to ask for help and we want them to question the ideas in works that they are reading. The cliché is “The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.” We encourage questioning because it develops confidence, it helps students engage in material and it helps develop classroom discussion. We want students to become skeptical and to become questioning citizens. However, that said, I think, really, that all questions are NOT created equal.
Some questions stem from a close reading of material and demonstrate that a student is engaged with the ideas that the reading is presenting. For example, “Do the ideas that Thomas Friedman presents in this column have any connection to energy development in Sheridan, Wyoming?” or “Why has David Stockman repudiated “Supply Side Economics?” or even “Can you explain what the author means here?” These are questions that show that the questioner has read and thought about what she has read. These are questions that will allow a fruitful and robust discussion in a classroom.
Then there are questions that reflect a student’s lack of analytical skill. These are appropriate and often difficult to answer. For example, after several weeks of looking at poetry, reading it, discussing it, and writing about it, a student asked me how one could tell if a poem was an extended metaphor. I was slightly taken aback. Poets take it for granted that people will understand their metaphors. But this student was genuinely asking. She truly didn’t know, which meant, to me, that she hadn’t paid close to the things I had been saying in class and the places where I had warned students ahead of time to pay attention to what was happening in the poem. I had read them Adrienne Rich’s wonderful poem “Diving into the Wreck” and told them ahead of time that it was NOT about scuba diving. After I read the poem, I asked the class what the poem was about, and how she was using the deep-sea diving metaphor. So, when this young woman asked this question, I could go back to that poem and help her see the places where the reader knows that the poem is metaphorical. While I was startled by the question, I would not call it a “stupid question.” It was a question borne out of inexperience with poetry and a lack of confidence. It deserved a genuine answer.
Then there are questions that I can only call “stupid questions.” Recently, I asked an English Comp I class what questions or ideas they had about a section of the book we were reading. There was a silence, which is usually an indication that they have not read the material, and then a young man raised his hand and asked, “Why does this author use so many big words?” This is a “stupid question”. This particular author uses words that any reasonable well-educated person should know. The book is a piece of “popular non-fiction” at the level generally published in magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic. I have encouraged, and in some cases, required the members of this class to underline words that they don’t know in a reading and look them up. I have repeatedly suggested that close reading requires this action. We have gone over vocabulary in class. This student knows this. To ask this question in class is guaranteed to annoy a teacher. This question implies that the student doesn’t want to learn. It implies that he wants to be feed information, and that he takes no initiative for his own learning. I discussed this question with some of my colleagues, and we all admitted that we would have been embarrassed to ask this in question in class. We would have looked up words we didn’t know. So, this question is “stupid” on many levels. It shows me that he has not been doing the work the I have asked him to do, it shows me that he is not engaged in the material and, because of the tone of voice in which it was asked, it dares me to teach him. Students should recognize that this kind of question does nothing for them. There’s no real way to answer it. It reflects very badly on the student’s attitude and undermines any respect that the teacher might have had for this student.
I am not saying that students shouldn’t ask about specific vocabulary, but a question like “What does the author mean when he uses this word in this context?” is far different from “Why does this author use such big words?” One implies that the student has actually read the material and genuinely needs clarification, and one is truly a “stupid” question. It is never in a student’s self-interest to ask this kind of question.
Good teaching always encourages questioning, but I think we do have an obligation to acknowledge that not all questions are created equal.