Articles > Hadeel Al Kamli

What a "silly" question!

By: Hadeel Al Kamli

Have you ever been in a meeting or a lecture where you had a burning question that you couldn't get over? It is a simple question, yet everything won't make sense unless you get an answer. What makes it hard to ask is that everyone else seems to have figured it all out. Which makes you feel somewhat stupid. However, when you finally find the courage to ask your question, everyone heaves a sigh of relief, perhaps more will have the bravery to ask questions, and you realize that your question wasn't "silly" after all. In his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1997), Carl Sagan states that "There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”. I know for a fact that I have been in that situation so many times. As a teacher, this made me think about the importance of learners' questions. Why is it so important to encourage learners to ask questions? And more importantly, how can we do that?

No matter how "silly" or insignificant you think it is, a question represents a gap that needs to be filled. Not only that, but questions also give us "teachers" a glimpse into the learners' minds. It helps us identify how students think, how much they know about a topic, and which aspects they find most challenging. Moreover, encouraging questions will keep the discussion flowing, interesting, and engaging. Furthermore, it will help students dig deeper, be critical thinkers, and will promote active learning.

Students often find it challenging to ask questions and that is caused by one or all of the following reasons: a) It could be because they feel shy or embarrassed and uncertain of how others would react to their questions, (b) It might also be because they assume that asking questions will make them look less intelligent or less competent in front of their peers, and (c) It may be because they cannot properly formulate a question that would appropriately get their inquiry across. No matter the reason, here are some tips that I believe could encourage learners to ask in class.

  • Start asking questions yourself; ask questions that seem obvious to you, and never assume that they are clear to them because these might be the same questions your students are hesitant to ask. It will help you see things from their perspective, spark fruitful discussions, and it can certainly help them pick up a healthy habit.

  • Respect your students' level; your students' questions will show you how far they are in their learning journey. Make sure you are always respectful towards their novelty and that you fuel their curiosity with acceptance. You cannot help them reach their destination unless you appreciate where they are standing now.

  • Create a safe, respectful environment; make it a rule in your class that all participants are welcomed and appreciated. Make sure students are considerate of each other's needs and queries.

  • Reformulate their questions; you can support your students by helping them express and articulate their inquiries; this will also assist them in discovering where their knowledge gaps are and eventually lead them to their answers.
  • Celebrate their questions; whenever students raise a question – no matter what your opinion is– show enthusiasm and make them feel like they have raised an important point. Show them that you are grateful that they have provided you with a chance to highlight such an important idea or aspect.

  • Create opportunities for anonymous questions; you can use sticky notes or an app; these could be used during class to increase interaction or at the end of the lesson to be addressed during the following class to reinforce what they have learned in the previous class.

  • Give students a chance to answer before you do; letting students provide answers to each other's queries will help you as a teacher to get the maximum benefit from students' questions. More importantly, this will boost students' confidence because now they are also contributors. Thus, students will feel like they are sharing and exchanging knowledge instead of only receiving it. This one could be tricky unless teachers go about it in a way that shows togetherness and collaboration.

Although we might think that we are doing our students a favor by allowing them to ask questions, we are the ones privileged to be allowed to explore our students' minds. Those inquiries provide proof that students are learning. We should never forget that if learners are questioning, they are learning. What a prize!