Ever since grade school I would hear teachers say, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” And I know why they repeat this mantra over and over to their students. They are trying to encourage students to speak up among their peers, and not be afraid. To be adventurous and curious thinkers, after all, their question may well be on the minds of others, and if not asked will go unanswered. I would also agree that it is important in the formation of young children to get this message, so please don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to shake the already fragile ego of a second or third grader. But the fact is; there are stupid questions!

The sooner we realize this the smarter we will be. I guess you could chalk this up to some old cynical professor who has reached his allotment of ridiculous questions in the classroom. But I do think it’s time to honestly confront the issue. We need to be teaching our students to be critical thinkers, if not in middle school, at least in high school, because critical thinkers ask good questions, and we need more of them in college.

Part of the training in critical thinking is being held accountable for our thinking. Our ideas need to be challenged. I don’t think our world of Snap Chats, texts, tweets, and social media has done us any favors in the critical thinking category.  Not that I am against social media, but it doesn’t normally challenge us very deeply. And quite frankly, it isn’t designed to do that. The classroom, however, is designed for it, or at least it was some fifty or sixty years ago.

Unfortunately, over the last generation a new definition of “acceptance” has emerged which has crowded out any idea of challenging the student; in the fear that the students’ self-esteem might be damaged.  I believe the opposite is true. What a boost to someone’s self-esteem to be able to present ideas that have been tried, tested, refined and found to be rock solid. How important it is to hold the student to a high standard, that they can aspire to, which includes honest assessment of their work.

A part of this struggle, in the process of refining ideas, is learning how to ask the right questions. This takes the focused mental discipline of reading the textbook, doing the homework, listening to the lectures and conducting the research of solid scholarship. It is hard work, one in which students cannot be “let off the hook.” In other words, if the student isn’t disciplined in these areas he or she knows it will not be tolerated! The student will most definitely be taken to task by the professor or even other students.

However, this is impossible when we translate “acceptance” into the idea that everyone has to make the grade. No one can fail. Every question is a good question. This simply makes a student lazy and gives no incentive to be disciplined enough to think on their own. The outcome leaves little or no motivation to think deeply or critically, which is the core of a good question, and without that core there will never be an end to stupid questions.

We need to get back to the idea that acceptance is not that we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but that everyone has an equal opportunity to learn, even if it hurts. The rough and tumble world of ideas, found in open discussion, with some of the best being in the classroom, is where ideas are developed, refined and even changed.  It is also the place where new ideas are found, because the best questions are being asked, or the worst questions are being pointed out. The point is not to ridicule someone, but to encourage a student in making a knowledgeable contribution to the discussion.

Sometimes, when I discuss this topic with others, I get the feeling they think I don’t care about students. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. I love my students! And my love and care for them is exactly why I believe they need to learn this important fact.  I have found that most of my students have agreed with my position, at least those who are serious students with a desire to learn. Students with a desire to learn want to be challenged. For some students, the idea that there is such a thing as a stupid question is a new idea, although deep down they probably are aware of the concept, but just haven’t spent much time thinking about it. So when we discuss the fact of stupid questions in our first class session they often ask for an example. Which is a good question, my answer is what I consider the top three stupid questions in the classroom.

“The way I see it, the first stupid question is ones which reveals to the professor that the student hasn’t done any of the assigned reading which clearly spells out the answer. The second stupid question is one in which the student wants the professor to give an answer, because they want to do little or no research on their own.  And the third stupid question is when the professor has just finished explaining a certain concept and a student, who was texting or surfing the internet and therefore not paying attention, asks the professor to explain the topic he just explained.”

These kinds of questions are the reason that during orientation I tell my students, “Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question.”

John M. Scholte, M. Div.

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