It's fine to encourage students to speak up by telling them there are no stupid questions. Yet students' willingness to ask questions has less to do with us encouraging them to do so than how we respond when they actually do ask questions.
Unfortunately, teachers often respond to questions in ways that deter students from asking more questions. Sometimes we do this by dismissing or barely answering their questions because "we need to move on." Other times we do it more subtly through responses that would seem to encourage students to ask questions, such as "great question."
How could a positive comment like "great question" deter students from asking questions? Simple. If some questions are great, then by implication others are not great. And it's inevitable that kids will be reluctant to ask questions if they think their questions may not elicit our praise. From their perspective, then, there are indeed stupid questions.
A better approach involves reinforcing the act of asking a question, regardless how profound or simple a question may be. Rather than respond to students using evaluative words such as "great," express gratitude to them for asking a question. A quick "thanks for your question" validates students, and supports the notion that there are no stupid questions. (You can always follow up later with private praise for students whose questions strike you as particularly thoughtful.)
My point here doesn't just apply to students asking questions, but also to answering them. It's important to avoid affirming students only when we agree with their answers, especially when there isn't necessarily one right answer--such as when teachers ask students to predict, infer, or interpret while discussing literature.
All too often, however, we convey to students that there is just one right answer. At times we do this overtly, as when a teacher asked students what they thought the motivation was behind a character's behavior. When a student said "love," the teacher said "I disagree." When another student then said "jealousy," the teacher said "exactly." Sometimes it's not just our words but our intonation--"Really?!" Other times it's not our words at all, but our raised eyebrows or other gestures. And again, sometimes we may deter students in subtle ways. I recall a teacher telling a student, "Great prediction," and then saying to another student, "Hmmm, so you think she is going to accept the job."
The solution, as it is for responding to students' questions, is to respond to students' thoughts gratefully yet neutrally. At the same time, it's not always in the class' best interest to say "thanks for sharing" and move on to another student or the next part of the discussion. But by first acknowledging students for sharing, we can then push the discussion to a more meaningful level. This may involve asking students to back up their answers by referring to the text. Or it may mean facilitating debate by asking students to react to each others' thoughts--which can be far more constructive than us reacting to their thoughts.
For students to learn to their potential, they need to feel free to ask questions and share their thoughts. And they'll never feel such freedom unless we as educators value their input rather than just evaluate it.
Image by Toonerman, provided by Dreamstime license
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