Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Stupid Questions

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question, but I beg to differ. We hear stupid questions almost every time adults and young children are together. 

For instance, a child is painting at an easel, exploring color, shape, and motion, experimenting with brushes, paper, and paint. There is an adult watching over her shoulder who points and asks, "What color is that?"

This is a stupid question. 

Here's another example: a child is playing with marbles, exploring gravity, motion and momentum. An adult picks up a handful of marbles and asks, "How many marbles do I have?"

The adult already knows the answer. The child probably does as well, in which case, the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies in order to reply to a banality. Or she doesn't know the answer, in which case the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies to play a guessing game.

In a moment, these stupid questions take a child who is engaged in testing her world, which is her proper role, and turns her into a test taker, forced to answer other people's questions rather than pursue the answers to her own.

If it's important that the child know these specific colors and numbers at this specific moment, and it probably isn't, then we should do the reasonable thing and simply tell her, "That's red," or "I have three marbles." If it's not new information, and it probably isn't, she's free to ignore you as she goes about her business of learning. If she didn't know, now she does, in context, as she goes about her business of learning.

This is probably the greatest crime we commit against children in our current educational climate of testing, testing, and more testing. We yank children away from their proper role as self-motivated scientists, testing their world by asking and answering their own questions, and instead force them to become test takers, occupying their brains with our stupid questions.

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Katesurfs said...

Oh, I love this! Thank you :)

Lori said...


Kathy Matthews said...

Hi Teacher Tom, I just found your blog. Thank you for all the great insight!

Anonymous said...

Yes! Drives me crazy when people do this to kids. Equally, it drives me crazy when my daughter does this to me! Why on earth does she keep asking me questions that she knows the answer to? When I ask her this question, she says, "I like hearing you say the answers again."

Anonymous said...

Right. Self motivated child scientists. Makes sense. Why not take this further and blame the teachers of the teachers of the teachersX10^infinite? When and where is your next seminar? Or is this just blog thing? What's the plan Captain? How do we fix this?

Teacher Tom said...

This is part of every talk I do, Anon. I'm not trying to blame anyone, but the key to "fixing" it is, as important adults in children's lives, to strive to be conscious of the things we are saying, and, if we aren't sure what to say, don't say anything at all. I've been working on how I speak with children (informatively, without commands or stupid questions) for my entire career. It's not easy, but it's worth it.

Anonymous said...

I agree. My issue is that my son has a speech disorder and needs repetition, repetition. It sucks, it really does, asking him questions so he gets help. Blah. And I know my son is learning and taking all of this in. I detest the incessant stupid chatter help he needs.

Nicole Elizabeth said...

Teacher Tom,

I am learning more and more about children every day. Do you have a book written? I'd like yo read it if you do.

Daniel Mason said...

Interesting, its good to challenge the way we commonly (and often unthinkingly) talk to children.

In the examples you gave with the marbles and painting, what would you have said if anything? Also I guess the age of the child makes a big difference.

Teacher Tom said...

Daniel, Thank you. Of course, I probably would say nothing at all, but if I felt I needed to speak I would have spoken informatively, "You are using red paint," or "I'm holding three marbles." I've provided information rather than tested them.

greyhoundgirl said...

Totally agree with you. I appreciate your style of using simple declaratives (or saying nothing). And another by-product of adults testing children with silly questions: it makes some children very anxious, especially those whose temperament tends towards perfectionism and anxiety. if there's a right answer, there must be a wrong answer and what if i give the wrong answer? Very hard for some kids--and teaches them that binary thinking is prized above all else. Thanks for the work.

stephanieseay said...

Love this! I had a brilliant mentor who once told me,"Never ask questions to which you already know the answer." Keeping that in mind as I engage in conversations with my kindergarten students has led to many wonderfully rich conversations--conversations in which I learn more about their questions, their approaches to learning, their thoughts and feelings, doubts and triumphs. And through those authentic conversations, I can also learn about my students' mathematical understandings, their language acquisition, and even their recognition of colors (:)). But most importantly, I learn about who each child is, not simply what each child knows or can recall. And these windows into their worlds happens organically--no scripted guide needed, no checklist to fill in. Thank you for being bold enough to challenge us all to reflect on how we interact with our students. Bravo!

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