There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question

I was lucky enough to see Professor John Hattie speak last week.  If you don’t know who John Hattie is, the Visible Learning website says he is “a researcher in education. His research interests include performance indicators, models of measurement and evaluation of teaching and learning. John Hattie became known to a wider public with his two books Visible Learning and Visible Learning for teachers. Visible Learning is a synthesis of more than 800 meta-studies covering more than 80 million students.  According to John Hattie Visible Learning is the result of 15 years of research about what works best for learning in schools. TES once called him “possibly the world’s most influential education academic”.  He is a great speaker, takes no prisoners and isn’t afraid to say what he thinks.  He is uncompromising about what works in education and what doesn’t.

I have seen John Hattie speak several times before but what hit me on this occasion was what he said about children asking questions.  He said that his research shows that in a lesson children ask an average of 2 questions.  Most of the time they are the passive recipients of learning – teachers talk for 89% of the time in lessons.  This is a problem.  Especially when we find out that the things that do make a difference to children’s learning are often connected to independence in learning, metacognition, study skills, self-verbalisation and self-questioning.  These things require the space in lessons for children to ask questions.

I remember that as I set off for my first day at secondary school, my Mum told me something that I have never forgotten, she said “Don’t ever be afraid to put your hand up and ask a question.  If you have that question, you can bet that at least 5 other children in the class have the same question but they are too scared to put their hands up.  Never be too scared to ask a question.  You have to be brave enough to ask not just for yourself but for the other children too”.

I teach a class of Year 4 children one afternoon a week.  I teach ‘reciprocal reading’ which is a very carefully planned methodology that explicitly teaches vocabulary alongside reading for understanding and comprehension skills such as inference.  One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is how small the vocabulary of some of our children is.  One of the reasons for teaching reading in this way is so that we can make sure that children know and understand the words they are reading.  The plans highlight some of the words that we think the children will have trouble with but there are always some other words that we presume the children will know only to discover that they don’t.

I told the children in Year 4 about the words of wisdom my Mum gave me and said that they had to raise their hand if there were any words that they didn’t know.  As a result, we have hands popping up all the time and the children are happy to share when they don’t know something.  I want the classroom to be a safe place where we are all secure enough to ask questions, admit when we don’t know the answer and share the thrill of learning something new.

This week when I had taught a lesson on the human digestive system that involved children recreating the digestive system, ending up with ‘poo’, I made sure that I allowed enough time at the end for the children to ask questions and I welcomed all of the questions, making sure that the children knew that there was no such thing as a stupid or silly question.  It was a great 15 minutes with getting on for 50 questions, some of which I could answer there and then and some of which I sent the children away to find out the answers.  As a result, I now know why poo is brown.  There really is no such thing as a stupid question.



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