Pay attention at the front!

"Miss, where does Pooh come from?" asks the little boy. The teacher raises her eyebrows, takes a deep breath and then proceeds to explain all about nutrition, eating food, the digestive system, and how waste products are eliminated from the body. The little boy nods, but looks unimpressed, and then asks a follow up question: "So where does Tigger come from?"

When I was in primary school I remember asking a question of my teacher. I asked her if the word 'desert' (noun: arid wilderness) was related to the word 'desert' (verb: to abandon). She looked at me with raised eyebrows, and then told me it was a stupid question. All my classmates laughed at me, and I was very embarrassed. I learnt the lesson - never, ever ask a question in class. You will be laughed at. It took me years to unlearn that lesson. Years later, I looked up the etymology of the word 'desert', and discovered that I was in fact correct. The words are related, as both have the same root Latin word dēserere - meaning to forsake. So I was correct in spotting that there is a link between the arid wilderness and being abandoned. I was merely seeking confirmation from an older, more knowledgeable other, and I didn't get that confirmation. All I received was a mild reprimand, and a lot of ridicule.

What I had asked wasn't a stupid question. It was my young mind, ever inquisitive, seeking answers and asking searching questions. I asked a creative question which the teacher could have capitalised on, and made a teaching point from. Instead, she misunderstood me, in all probability thinking that I meant dessert - which might very well have been looming large in her mind, so close to break time. Now I'm older, I know that there are no such things as stupid questions. But there are plenty of stupid answers.

So, the lesson today is: Always pay attention to what kids ask when they are learning. Listen to them. Never dismiss what they say. Every child has something to contribute and their ideas should never be devalued or their confidence undermined. Teachers who listen to children's questions, and consider all the possible meanings will tap into a huge reservoir of creative energy. The Pooh question could have been capitalised on in so many ways, to create teachable moments. In asking such questions, children are exploring their own reality, and assimilating a vast amount of knowledge, simply through the responses of their teachers and peers. Flexibility, creativity and the ability to question are some of the most important transferrable skills that children will need in the fluid, changeable and unpredictable world of work they will emerge into when they eventually leave school. So pay attention at the front!

Image source by theirhistory

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Pay attention at the front! by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Simon Ensor said…
Stupid question: why do we put so much value on asking kids to give us our answers back and so little value on getting them to ask questions to which we have no answer? We might even learn something together...iOnly questions please!
Steve Wheeler said…
Look Simon, I've already told you there are no such things as stupid questions. Only stupid answers :-)

Yes, you are absolutely correct - children should be encouraged to ask more questions, difficult ones, and they should find the answers for themselves if they can. We need to develop enquiring minds.
Anonymous said…
"Always pay attention to what kids ask when they are learning. Listen to them. Never dismiss what they say. Every child has something to contribute and their ideas should never be devalued or their confidence undermined. "

Call me crazy, but to me these thoughts are a given, and it seems bizarre to me, and a little bit sad, that we live in a world where these thoughts even need to be articulated in a blog post. Unfortunately we do.
Felix said…
Hear, hear.

The most valuable educational gift I was given as a child was parents who never, ever answered a question even when they new the answer – but never, ever, dismissed it either. They made every question seem an adventure.

I, too, asked the arid/abandoned "desert" question. My father replied (as either parent would have done, because the always did); “I don't know; let's find out!” Whereupon we went to the battered household copy of Nuttall's English Dictionary and found out.

I was very lucky. Too many teachers (by no means all, to be fair) were the same as your example.
Simon Ensor said…
Riduculous ideas, stupid questions, bright minds...

'First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.' Mahatma Gandhi.

'Ridicule is the tribute paid to the genius by the mediocrities.'

Oscar Wilde
I'm excited to have run into you tonight at Curiosity. I look forward to hearing or reading more from you. You have wrapped up what I've always felt through my many years teaching subversively and a nutshell. Cool!

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