Last week, during a topic discussion on the history of the pandemic, a parent came and sat in my class. I usually allow parents to attend classes to be a part of their kid’s learning journey. A student, after the discussion, asked a question that was too obvious for many, but for me, it was kind of rhetorical. “…Sir, in mediaeval times people do cover up their faces then what makes the virus spread so fast?” Although we have discussed in the start what makes the virus spread so fast by having the present world example of covid 19 and its spread in 2020. However, what puzzled me was that the parent suddenly has a sarcastic smile that every student has witnessed, including the one who asked the question. I let students answer this question collaboratively. After the class, the parent thanked me for allowing her to sit and observe the class.
I deliberately asked why she smiled when the student requested that question. She comfortably said she thought that the question was already discussed at the start of the class, and she believed that the student did not have much attention. Therefore he asked this question which was too obvious – in short, what I got was ‘STUPID’. She left, but then I reflected, and a series of questions popped into my mind. Was that kid inattentive during the starter activity? Or was his question stupid or too obvious? Does that parent understand the context of this kid’s question? What would happen if I discouraged students from not asking such obvious questions?
As a teacher, I believe there are no stupid questions, although there are often stupid answers. But I often heard people conclude by saying, “I know this is a stupid question, but it can be answered”. Using such a sentence by someone you consider adult results in common anxiety that halts the quest for knowledge—the fear of being shamed for the lack of it or simply the want of it. The astronomer/author Carl Sagan once described the difference between visiting a kindergarten class and a high-school class to talk about science. The kindergartners were passionately curious, endlessly excited, natural-born scientists and never heard of a dumb question. The high schoolers were worn-out, the joy of discovery and the sense of wonder was essentially lost to them, and they were horrified to ask dumb questions.
According to Newsweek magazine, research shows that preschool children ask an average of 100 questions a day. Sagan called them “cries to understand the world”, which of course would test the patience of even the most committed parents and teachers. By middle school, kids may have primarily stopped asking questions, which unexpectedly declines their sense of motivation and engagement. But they don’t stop asking questions because they lose interest. They lose interest because they stop asking questions. The passion for learning doesn’t naturally wane as we get older. Something gets in the way.
Let’s have an example of curiosity which isn’t always welcomed. We have probably all had the experience of asking a question and having others quickly change the subject, or tell us we overthink, or turn firmly back to their chores as if they’ve never heard us. Most of us can probably remember the effect of asking a specific question of a particular person who didn’t want to be bothered. Like when you asked your doctor to explain every test result in detail. Or the time you asked your mother how babies are born while she was entertaining.
The New York Times columnist Adam Bryant asked 700 CEOs what qualities they see most often in people who succeed, and the number one on their list was “passionate curiosity.” Indeed, without question, there’s no discovery, and without discovery, there’s no learning. Passionate curiosity helps us cultivate what Buddhist’s call a beginner’s mind, one of profound innocence and openness. You don’t want an answer, you can put in a box. You want a question that will become a source to carry your imagination throughout your life and lead you toward what you need to know for your intellectual journey.