Are There Bad or Stupid Questions?

By Bill Long on August 19, 2019

Over coffee last week with a friend of mine, from a devout Mennonite background, told me that when he was growing up his father had a saying: "If you hvae your health...you have EVERYTHING!"  My friend said, "This nerve disease I have had for 16 years has completely alterned my life; sometimes I can barely walk; I am exhausted a good deal of the time.  In a word, I don't have my health.  Yet, as I age and look at my life, I actually believe that I have EVERYTHING.  I guess I disagree with my (late) dad."

This candid conversation highlighted to me how we all hear, and sometimes pass on, cliches or sayings from a variety of sources, many of which may be popular but simply not true.  One of these statements, coming out of an education environment that wanted to encourage more student participation, was "There is no such thing as a bad question."

For years I believed that was true.  Every question, I believed, could open up new worlds.  Even if a query was inartuculately spoken or was unfocused, I believed that it could be the means for unlocking a student's curiosity and even for helping me see a subject in new ways.  But I don't believe anymore that there is "No such thing as a bad question."

How did I change my mind?  I changed my mind not because I said to myself, "X student asks good questions and Y student asks poor questions," but because I saw the effect of my questions on students.  Sometimes I would ask them about a reading assignment and there would be dead silence.  Other times there was animated discussion.  I ultimately decided that the difference lay in my ability to figure out what the right or best question was, the question that either touched their lives or their aspirations.

I have tried to bring that insight into all kinds of interactions.  I seek the question that opens up a heart or might yield an insight.  I ask questions that play to the knowledge, rather than prejudice, of another person.  I feel I am richer because I no longer believe, "There is no such thing as a bad question.