What Questions Really Are the Stupid Questions?

March 15, 2015

Like many students, I used to scoff at the idea that there was no such thing as a stupid question. My arrogant and misdirected belief was born of years of being a student who didn’t have to ask many questions. Then I went to the Math Olympiad Summer Program (MOP) after my tenth grade year. The first classes started with Professor Rousseau writing ‘Counting’ on the board. Good, I thought. I can count . . .

Neon sign with the word ‘ASK’ on it, because students need to be comfortable asking questions when learning hard stuff.

Within ten minutes I was thoroughly lost. I stopped taking notes and waited desperately for the class to end. I didn’t dare raise my hand. Questions, I thought, were just for dumb kids. After class I found the professor and asked him to explain it to me again. He did so patiently. I didn’t understand. But, rather than ask him again and risk making him think I was stupid and didn’t belong at MOP, I thanked him, said I followed it all, and spent the next five weeks daydreaming in class while a great opportunity slipped away.

I’m not fifteen anymore. I’m still not very good at asking questions—perhaps that’s a habit best developed early. But I do at least know that asking questions isn’t just for dumb kids. Accepting one’s own lack of understanding rather than risking looking stupid—that’s for dumb kids.

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