September 4, 1992

The Question-Answer Game

The school is, in a sense,a lemon-producing factory. It's not because the kids come as lemons; the schools produce lots of kids who say to themselves "I am stupid because I can't answer the questions; I can't play the game that is being played here. Therefore, I am going to stop playing the game".

Albert Shanker, 1990

If I had to pick the single most important reason why children turn school off, it would be the standard practice of humiliating students.

As a child, I discovered early in the game that many teachers like humiliating kids. What made me think that they liked humiliating students? If they didn't, why would they go out of their way to ask questions of the kids who didn't know the answers? I found that if I raised my hand frequently at the beginning of the term and always knew the correct answer, the teacher would stop calling on me. Then I could relax for the rest of the term, without the fear that the teacher would ask me questions that I didn't know the answer to. The teachers would concentrate on the kids who were unprepared.

Asking a kid questions that he doesn't know the answers to is good pedagogy. What's humiliating is his having to stand up with a spotlight shining on him, in front of his peers, and being wrong; and sometimes being ridiculed by his peers or the teacher. Some students get used to it; most never do.

Do teachers really enjoy humiliating kids? A substantial number of the teachers I had did it --but by no means all. Whether they enjoyed it or not is something that I don't know. Maybe they were just teaching their students in the same way that they were taught as children.

The second thing that turned me off in school was that every time I asked a question that the teacher couldn't answer, I was treated as if I was intentionally trying to give the teacher a hard time. After a while, I found that giving such teachers a hard time was quite enjoyable. That continued until my junior year in college when I ran into a professor who wasn't embarrassed by the fact that he didn't know everything, or that he might be wrong. I assume that he wasn't embarrassed because he knew that he knew whatever there was to know in his field. He was a true expert. He knew what he knew, and knew what he didn't know. In contrast, people who don't know very much often don't like to be asked questions. It is still an embarrassment to them, as it was when they were students.

One of the most important lessons for a Ph.D. candidate is to learn the three most important words, with which you can answer most questions :I DON'T KNOW. Not knowing something will not embarrass a true expert, as you will find out if you talk to first rate scientists. Only the duffers are embarrassed. They could learn to look like experts by simply not knowing. In short, all that you have to do to look like an expert, is to tell the truth.

I had a simple rule when I taught: there are no stupid questions.

Putting down a kid is very easy for an adult. A teacher who does it loses a substantial percentage of his class the moment he does so.

When a student asks a question that he already knows the answer to, it's not necessarily stupidity, ignorance, or meanness. The student may be testing the teacher to see how he handles such questions. It behooves a teacher to respond with patience. The last resort, if a teacher feels badgered, is to say "see me at the end of the period and we'll see if we can solve the problem." An obnoxious student may really deserve to be put down, but when the teacher does it, he loses other students who will not trust him not to do the same to them. A teacher can lose a whole class in seconds. Once lost, it may be almost impossible to retrieve.

Lest you think that these games are peculiar to school teachers, think again. Many parents are also experts at the humiliation game and they do it to their own kids, not to strangers. And they do it in the name of love.

Next column

Return to the Education Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page