August 2008


Teachable Moment

In my educational career I’ve taken several seminar and classes on how to teach.

Personally I never had any doubt about my abilities to teach, but I can remember in many of these seminars that graduate students, both new and old, would ask questions that indicated that the thing they feared most was the prospect of going into a classroom and facing students.

These things have ranged from one day pre-fall semester seminars to semester long courses.

It was in one of the latter, an intimate course with 5 other students, where I witnessed an awesome teacher-student exchange. Four of the students were in my department, with the outsider being an overeager weirdo from another department. He took the class seriously, while those of us in the department treated the class like the joke that it was.

It’s not that the class didn’t have value; it was a ton of work for a single pass/fail credit taught by a guy who thought the class was the only thing going on in our lives.

One night our teacher, Captain Obvious, informed us that we should rarely, if ever, belittle or disparage any question asked by a student in class.

This is true: both undergraduates and graduate students tend not to recognize sarcasm and don’t appreciate being made fun of by the professor. Fortunately for the rest of us, the point was lost on the overeager weirdo who immediately asked a question.

“What do you mean by a belittling or disparaging response?”

There was a sharp and sudden icy silence in the classroom as the teacher spun on his heels and turned toward him.

“That is a really stupid question.”

5 comments to Teachable Moment

  • Reko

    I would go further: One of the best pedagogical talents involves taking even the stupidest, most inane questions and comments and “turning them into lemonade”–making something useful from them. It may be perfectly obvious to a significant number of the OTHER students how stupid the original question was, but if you can move beyond that, there can be value for the entire group, including the benighted asker.

  • koko

    I’m not sure I fully agree with the anonymous poster. I think a lot of times the students don’t exactly know what question they are wanting to answer so it comes off as a stupid question. In these cases yes, it’s better to go a step further.

    I am not sure I agree fully because I’ve recently been on both sides of the equation. The teacher having to respond to the stupid question and a student in a classroom where a stupid question was asked. It is clear as the student and as the teacher how it really distracts the other students. People automatically turn their minds off and start talking to their neighbors. If the teacher repeatedly allows for stupid questions this then breeds anger amongst the students. This past semester the professor let this guy ask all these rather dumb questions. After class I always heard everyone talking about how they wish that kid would shut up or wish the prof would stop him. Finally the kid asked, “can a person in a wheelchair apply to be a firefighter and actually be considered because of the disabilities law?”….Several people whispered obscenities and a few people made comments much louder. The prof finally said, “that is the most ridiculous question ever. you just want to hear yourself talk. stop asking stupid questions you know the answers to. you’re wasting everyone’s time”

    When I was teaching it was not uncommon for students to come up to ask me questions just because it was in their homework or they knew it was going to be on the test but didn’t know the answer. 9/10 times they were just too lazy to figure it out themselves. If they couldn’t pinpoint what part they didn’t understand I told them to go read the chapter and come back to me. It’s a fine line of doing the work for them versus having them actually learn.

    I have a friend who has an autistic student who loves to ask millions of questions. She just gave him a notebook to where he could write his questions down and she could respond to them later.

    Basically I think there is a fine line of catering to the stupid questions versus genuinely helping someone.

  • @koko: For the record it was Reko. In my old software I couldn’t add his name. Now I can!

  • reko

    Well, I don’t think that I really disagree with Koko. I was thinking about “stupid” questions in the sense of a sincere question posed from a place of stupidity or what should have become an unacceptable place of ignorance given what has happened in the course thus far. I agree with Koko that intentionally irritating questions do not MERIT much respect. But I would still try to treat the student in a respectful manner, even if I had to shut down their time-wasting distractions.

  • koko

    hi reko! I do agree though that you should be respectful. I guess that didn’t really come across in my original post. It is hard to tell if it’s a genuine question or them being a total butt. And you certainly don’t want to discourage students from asking questions.

    we are awesome 🙂