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As an instructor or student, how many times have you heard that phrase…”There is no such thing as a stupid question”?  I  have said this phrase many times lecturing an introductory workshop.  The reason why I say this phrase is to decrease anxiety in the classroom and encourage students to ask questions.  Many students don’t ask questions in fear of looking stupid or being made fun of by the instructor.  As instructors, we pose this phrase because we want our learners to feel safe and foster that positive learning environment. We also want our learners not to be afraid to ask questions.  I feel the picture above truly represents today’s students in our classroom.  The image and caption, “The only stupid question is the one not asked; is thought-provoking and asks the question “Why?”.  I wonder how many times learners left a class by not understanding a concept and didn’t ask a question in fear of looking stupid.  I think too many learners have sat in class lessons far too long to experience this anxiety.  It’s time to change that.

By saying “There is no such thing as a stupid question”; can you really ask yourself “Are you truly supporting your strategy for creating this no-holds-barred environment?”  In this thought-provoking on-line article, “There are No Stupid Questions, But…“; the author states that “teachers need to be neutral when responding to a student’s question”. This means the instructor should not give praise to a learner for asking a question.  For example:  A student asks a question.  The instructor gives the student a praise such as “Great question!”.  Ginsburg (2012) states “How could a positive comment like “great question” deter students from asking questions? Simple. If some questions are great, then by implication others are not great. And it’s inevitable that kids will be reluctant to ask questions if they think their questions may not elicit our praise. From their perspective, then, there are indeed stupid questions”. 

I have used this phrase many times in my class to encourage questions from learners but have not really considered my actions and it’s implications.  By judging/evaluating the learners’ questions, it actually creates a negative learning environment.  That’s correct.  The positive learning environment that I have been trying to create is ruined by my praise of saying “Great question!”  Even though my intent was pure, the psychological message I am saying to my learners is there are stupid questions if you’re question didn’t garner a “great question” praise.  It’s no wonder learners don’t ask questions in class!  It is because they are intimidated and are fearful of asking a stupid question.

So you can see instructors have to be cautious with praise.  Praises also create extrinsic motivation for learners which robs students of learning values, beliefs and attitudes.  Extrinsic motivation can create situational compliance where the student only learns subject matter for praise rather than independent self-directed learning.  Instructors need to promote intrinsic motivation where the focus is put on the actual learning process.

A simple “Thanks for your question” provides a quick neutral response to the student, which validates their question without evaluating their question. As Ginsburg (2012) states, ” For students to learn to their potential, they need to feel free to ask questions and share their thoughts. And they’ll never feel such freedom unless we as educators value their input rather than just evaluate it”.

So in summary, as an instructor, I will be very mindful when a students asks a question.  I’ll respond by saying “Thanks for your question” which will validate the student’s question and maintain neutrality.  By practicing this strategy, will help me build that positive learning environment where students are not afraid to ask questions and where students’ learning is the highlight of the discussion.

Reference:

Ginsburg, D.(March 2012). There are No Stupid Questions, But….  Retrieved on-line on Oct. 26, 2014 from http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/coach_gs_teaching_tips/2012/03/there_are_no_stupid_questions_but.html

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