When A Student Stops Asking Questions, Who’s to Blame?

I pulled her aside, wondering how I could help as we face another half a year of 7th grade.  Carefully I asked why she was with me, what had held her back from understanding what I had planned out.  What stood in her way of not completing her work. I searched for clues to be a better teacher for her and hoped she would she some light on why she never asked the questions I am sure she had.

“Do you get what the assignments ask you to do?” I asked searching for a place to start.

“No.” She answered matter of fact.

“Well, why don’t you ask me questions about them then?” A classic follow up question.

“A teacher once told me I asked too many questions.  Whenever I raised my hand he would say, “Oh here comes another question…” and so I stopped.  I figured I didn’t want to upset my teachers.  I figured they didn’t want to hear it.”

The weight of that statement swallowed me for a moment, the enormity of a child telling me they had stopped questions, so I looked her and said the only thing I could.

“You have our permission to ask as many questions as you need.  You have our permission to ask even after you have asked and you still don’t understand.  Don’t ever let someone stop you from asking a question.  Part of my job as a teacher is to answer your questions, don’t forget that.”

I think of what I have probably said in the past when I have been in a hurry.  When I have been annoyed that a student asked that question.  When I felt sure that they just hadn’t listened  and so they didn’t really deserve for me to answer their question.  I shudder at the permanent damage I may have caused from my own terrible judgment.  I shudder at the things I have taught students just because of my own impatience.

The thing is with teaching that I sometimes forget; part of our job is to answer questions, not judge them with our answers.  Not judge them with our veiled contempt at yet another question.  Part of our job is to create classrooms where students feel safe to ask.  Safe to ask again.  Safe to ask in a different way. Our job is to teach all of the kids.  Even the ones who don’t understand.  Even the ones who ask us question upon question.  Our job is not to teach students that they should never ask a question.  Think of the damage our words may cause.  Think of what we truly teach children with our words.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

9 thoughts on “When A Student Stops Asking Questions, Who’s to Blame?

  1. Pernille, your post prompted me to email this note to my colleagues:

    To my dear colleagues,

    I know I ask heaps of questions because sometimes I just don’t get it instantly, (particularly ICT). Other times, you may need to draw a simple sketch to clarify. (100% visual learner)

    As a kid at school, I also stopped asking questions for fear of feeling put down, sniggered at and being made to feel foolish.

    As a teacher at school, I thank you all for listening to me, hearing me and for your patience and time ( no matter how trivial you feel my question might be).

    Thanks
    Desiree

      • My colleagues responded positively: One said if I ever feel she dismisses my questions ( which she doesn’t) I must make her aware, and she will also be more ‘ careful’ with her students re their questions. Another said she likes my questions as I take action when I ‘get it’.
        Another commented that through explaining to me with a simple sketch that ‘ I get’ instantly, he now uses this strategy with his students. Beats me how a maths problem ( Upper Primary) can be solved without drawing a diagram???

  2. This is a very important reminder, Pernille. It is important to create a classroom environment in which children feel welcome to ask questions and never made to feel embarrassed by any question that is asked. Asking questions can be difficult for fear that it may expose a lack of knowledge. When unsure if you are the only one who doesn’t ‘get it’, asking that question can feel very threatening and embarrassing. The courage that it takes to ask a question should be recognised and encouraged. Children need to be encouraged to keep asking questions until they have the answers they need. Adults do too! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  3. As a recent graduate my feelings/observations are that tonnes of student hold back on all sorts of questions, not just those who don’t understand the exercise… they are just the ones that are easily spotted by teachers. Most students are sympathetic to a teachers stresses and job-requirements to get the whole class through a syllabus so, even students who get top marks will have questions that are beyond the syllabus, but hold back because they know there is no time and they know the teacher can feel awkward if he/she doesn’t know the answer. But, of course, the truth is that the best and most important questions are the ones that no one knows the answers to… Perhaps a good way to move on would be for teachers to see questions as what they are, curiosity, rather than always feel the need to answer the question. If students ‘curious’ questions (as opposed to ‘clarifying’ questions) are acknowledged with a ‘what do you think?’ or ‘how might you find that out?’ then maybe we can all open up a bit more. Thank you Pernille for the honest post; I feel that allot of people will identify with the story of your student.

    • I think you bring up a strong point of what questions are for; to promote curiosity. Teachers should not feel that they need to know every answer but instead embrace the opportunities that come along with not knowing everything. I admit my lack of knowledge all of the time and then ask students how we will find out, they like then figuring it out rather than just dismissing something.

  4. My colleagues responded positively to my email which included your post Pernille. One said their goal this year ( our new school year in Australia) is to encourage and value students’ questions; another said its worth spending the extra bit of time answering my questions as when I get it I go for it!
    Beats me how some problems can be solved without drawing a diagram and asking lots of questions😜

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