Don't blame the kids for not asking

20th May 2005 at 01:00
I once worked with a colleague who often gave students this piece of advice:

"Don't be afraid to ask the naive question." He believed that in lectures or tutorials people were often apprehensive about asking questions in case they appeared foolish by exposing their ignorance. In fact, the seemingly naive question might be the one that other members of the class would appreciate as they too could be experiencing similar confusion.

I was reminded of this colleague by a comment reported to me from another source, this time a primary teacher. She ventured the opinion that most children stopped asking questions after primary 3. This is a sweeping generalisation, of course, but it should give us pause for thought.

Insofar as it is true, how might it be explained? Does it arise because, by that stage, children have become conditioned to a process of learning by transmission in which passive reception on their part is the order of the day? I suspect, in fact, that many primary schools do rather better than their secondary counterparts in encouraging questions. Particularly in the upper secondary, with thoughts of examinations looming large, the pressure on teachers to cover the syllabus means that time for questions may be curtailed.

It would be interesting to conduct a research study comparing the amount of pupil questioning at different stages of schooling and, within the secondary school, between different subjects.

Encouraging questions carries risks of course. None of us knows all the answers and gaps in our knowledge would be exposed. But is that such a bad thing? The notion of the teacher as infallible expert has never been tenable. Would there really be a loss of authority if we occasionally had to acknowledge that we didn't know? Such instances can provide opportunities for joint enquiry by teacher and pupil to identify relevant sources of information and seek out possible answers.

There is another aspect of this issue that interests me and it highlights the connection between the learning of pupils and the learning of teachers.

I suspect a similar pattern of a low frequency of questioning could be detected if an observation study of teachers in training were to be carried out. Their professional initiation offers limited scope for the questioning of policy orthodoxies: too often they are rewarded for simply repeating the received wisdom rather than subjecting it to critical scrutiny.

The argument can be extended to courses of continuing professional development for experienced teachers. Often these take the form of presentations based on centrally prepared training materials which can serve to restrict the parameters for discussion. Even where there is a specific slot on the programme for questions, it may be subject to careful control.

At conferences, for example, it is not uncommon for groups to be asked to prepare written questions for the final plenary session, and only some of these will actually be tackled. Any really challenging question, which may raise fundamental issues about the rationale for the topic under discussion, is unlikely to surface.

What I am suggesting, therefore, is that if teachers, whether pre-service or established, are not encouraged to ask questions, then it is hardly surprising that the pupils in their classrooms demonstrate a similar tendency. Questions should not be regarded as a tiresome interruption to the tidy exposition of the teacher, but as evidence of engagement with the learning process.

It is ironic that, at a time when ambitious policy pronouncements about learning and teaching are frequently uttered by the Scottish Executive and local authorities, this simple lesson has not been taken fully on board.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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