Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Power of Stupid Questions

A couple of weeks ago, I had just finished an explanation in front of a class and ended with the usual, 'Any questions?' The room was silent but I couldn't quash the sneaking suspicion that there was at least a little question lurking in someone's mind. We have a significant number of EAL learners with wide variances in our learners' profiles so it seemed unlikely that (despite my best intentions) my 'one size fits all' explanation could have reached everyone at the same level. At that moment, I remembered a blog post that I'd read recently on the power of the 'bad idea', which in turn had been inspired by Ewan McIntosh.
When you ask a room of professionals to come up with their “best” solutions to a problem you often tend to get great ideas, but not always the best ones. They can be contrived and almost always involve some self-censorship from the team: people don’t offer anything up unless they feel, explicitly or subconsciously, that it will get buy-in from the rest of the team or committee.
Ask people for their “worst” solutions to a problem and people tend not to hold back at all – laughs are had and the terrible ideas flow. And while the initial suggestions might feel stupid, pointless or ridiculous to the originating team members, these awful ideas can take on a spectacular new lease of life in the hands of another, unrelated group.
Taking the core of this idea - that people feel uncomfortable expressing their 'best' for the judgement of others - I took a moment to explain that if any individual in front of me had a question about what I'd just said, it was likely that others had too but were nervous about saying it out loud. I pointed out that they spent much more time together as a class than I ever did so they would be better placed to know the types of misunderstandings their classmates might have. We had a short discussion on how a team attitude might lead us to think about what others could struggle with, not just ourselves and then how we might consider asking the questions that they may not want to. And then I asked them to think of a 'stupid' question. Slowly, voices came forward asking for various forms of clarification from a simple rephrasing of something I'd said to requests for non-examples. And I felt the room relax as learners who remained tight-lipped lost the tension around their shoulders and relaxed into their chairs; I have no evidence for the belief that this was because their query had been answered with no action on their part, but I choose to believe it all the same.

Since then, I check instructions with this request for 'stupid' questions and learners' brows furrow as they try to think of a question that they may not need to ask, but that could help others in the room. The number of questions has gone up, and surprisingly they rarely are indeed 'stupid'. The stigma of asking questions has lessened and I feel we've accomplished something in that learners can carry on with their activities with more confidence and minimal stress over comprehension. 

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