No, there are definitely stupid questions.

space cadetWe all know the cliche…”there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Nice try, whoever wrote that.

That guy clearly never spent more than three days in a classroom, during which time he would have heard a wide array of totally stupid questions.

For the rest of us, here’s how to handle 3 common, annoying, innocent stupid questions.

Stupid Question 1.

The student’s question suggests that he/she didn’t do the homework.

Don’t: assume, and don’t shame a student. A student who didn’t complete his homework might have spent the night playing watching asdf movies on YouTube. Grrr!

BUT: he might have had a sister chasing him around the house with a croquet mallet. Who can do homework under such conditions?!

Do: Say, “It sounds like you could use a refresher on the text. It’s okay, we haven’t had class in two days. Take the next three minutes, look it over, and see if that answers your question.”

[At the end of class, you can ask the student if s/he meant to get a homework pass].

Stupid Question 2:

The student asks the same question that you just answered…like, 2 minutes ago!

Don’t: Say, “I just answered that!”

Again, shaming is linked to lowered self esteem and that is linked to decreased performance.

And probably more stupid questions.

Do: Be understanding. After all, you space out in faculty meetings, right?

Say, “I know, it’s been a long day. I’ll swing around to you during independent work time and clarify for you.”


Do: “I know we’ve been covering a lot of material. Can I ask a student to summarize that last point again, for me?”

Notice: Summarize for me. 

Not: for “Summarize for Johnny who is a Space Cadet. And who can’t read.”

Stupid Question 3:

The student asks a question that you cannot follow.

Don’t: Squint and make a “wha?! face.”

interested monkey

DO look interested, focused, and patient.

confsued monkey

DON’T let on that you cannot follow the freakin’ question.

Do: Maintain a patient and focused demeanor. Ask for clarification, one or two times. After each try, say, “It’s a bit hard for me to follow the question, can you try again for me?”

Do: After three times, say, “It’s still a bit hard for me to follow. Is that okay with you if we move on and maybe, during independent work time, we can see if we can unpack the question?”


Unconditional Positive Regard

Let’s be clear. There are stupid questions. But students are not stupid, even if they act like it, sometimes. Often.

It’s your job to buffer your students from shame, and to communicate the basic idea that age-appropriate “Space Cadetery” is okay and normal and can be fixed. If you can master this, then you have made your classroom a safe place for learning. This echoes the the Unconditional Positive Regard that Psychologist Carl Rogers said was essential to therapy. A client, like a student, only has the courage to grow and change if they feel like their teacher or therapist likes them. It’s as simple as that.

And as challenging as that.

Students might be told a dozen times a day, in various ways, that they are not good enough, pretty enough, or smart enough.

You’re here to make them feel valued. Even if you’re annoyed.

They’ll love you for it.

They may even ask you a smart question.

What about you? What are your favorite Smart Answers to Stupid Questions?

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