Oh come on, someone must have a question

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Children should be taught to be sceptical - loudly sceptical - says Catherine Feeny

They've been thanked and applauded. "Now, are there any questions for our guest speakers?" Well, yes, here's one I prepared earlier, in anticipation of the deathly hush that now descends. I deliver it in a can-I-squeeze-this-in tone of voice, designed to give the impression that I'm lucky to have the chance. Is there a teacher out there who hasn't done the same? Why are our students so backward about coming forward?

It isn't like that in the US, where children's relatively late introduction to reading increases the importance of oral skills. It is endorsed in primary education by "Show and Tell", a regular classroom exercise in which pupils bring interesting objects to school and talk about them.

This is in marked contrast to Britain, where parents and government alike persist in the belief that education doesn't begin until a child is learning to read and write. Even in this audio-visual age, where much of the information we receive comes to us orally, the British equivalent of "Show and Tell", "News", is considered incomplete until it's put on paper. Real schoolwork is written schoolwork. Authentication of experience is clearly the preserve of the pencil.

Maybe our taciturn culture will always favour writing things down before speaking them, but isn't it also important our children realise that to put a word on a page doesn't necessarily render it valid or effective - or true?

At secondary school, proof of a topic's educational worth still takes the form of listening, taking notes, and then writing up. These are important abilities, but in the US they are ones which have long been taught and assessed alongside oral skills - in the form, for example, of spoken presentations on self-generated topics.

Not that asking a question in public is just a matter of being at ease with the sound of your own voice. In order to be confident that what they're saying isn't stupid, children need to be taught the various forms a question can take. The discursive American classroom style is, nevertheless, the result of a belief in the value of rhetoric. As a British exchange student and, later, university teacher, I was amazed to discover that American high-school pupils and undergraduates are often required to set their own examination and essay questions. Question technique is studied in composition classes, at school and college level.

Britain would do well to follow this example. Observers of the Thatcher years, who mourned the deterioration of the political interview into observation plus invitation to comment, need look no further than a typical examination paper for the template. And generations raised on the one-correct-answer approach are hardly likely to be well equipped to expose ambiguity or obfuscation.

At a political forum for high-school students in Washington DC, I watched girls and boys in their late teens stampede to the front of the room in order to get a good place in the queue to put their queries. I saw generals, senators, economists and judges get Robin Day-style grillings.

To invite questions is to encourage scepticism. Which is why, if we genuinely want to foster a spirit of enquiry in our children - and the developmental and societal benefits which go with it - we must be capable of living with the consequences.

Ultimately, we may have to welcome the undermining of our own authority.

Catherine Feeny teaches creative writing at the University of Sussex

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