Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

August 5, 2009

Never ask students a question you already know the answer to

Filed under: Behind the Desk — christinag503 @ 11:15 pm
Tags: , , ,

Unless you want to make them feel like children, bore them to tears, create desperation and confusion in the classroom, and cause them to resent you. Let me illustrate.

I remember when our dean of students at my small, private prep school “guest taught” my 10th-grade English class. We were studying Phillis Wheatley, a young slave who became the first published African American poet. He asked us some question about the man who decided to publish Wheatley’s work. I think it was, “What was the most significant thing about him?” or some other incredibly open-ended question. So we started tossing ideas out there….he worked for a newspaper. “No.” He was from Virginia. “No!” I can’t remember now all of our answers, but I do know this charade went on for about ten full minutes, with us growing increasingly confused and desperate as he got angrier and angrier. He started giving us “hints.” “It has to do with what he looked like.” We were pretty confused. How were we supposed to know what he looked like? They didn’t have cameras then. Did he have a beard? “NO!” Than he said, “It begins with a W.” Somebody guessed that he was a writer, and he hotly reminded us that it had to do with the man’s physical appearance, not his work. I think by this point we were all sick of guessing out loud and then being screamed at, so we just sat and stared at him. After a little while, he realized we weren’t going to talk anymore, and he bellowed, “HE! WAS! WHITE!” I don’t know whether he got carried away and lost his temper, or if he thought he was being a good teacher by demonstrating enthusiasm for his subject, but all it impressed upon me was that this man had just wasted twenty percent of our allotted class time to yell at us about something that wasn’t really even that important. (Of course, all these years later, I still remember what the dean said. I don’t remember the man’s name, what the dean’s point ultimately was, or even what question had been asked, but I remember that Phillis Wheatley’s publisher was white.)

I really, really loathe the “fishing for answers” that some teachers indulge in. Sometimes known as the “asking leading questions” technique, I have become convinced that it is nothing but an exercise in wasting time and condescension, frustrating both teacher and student. In most curricula, however, it’s the major teaching strategy. “Asking leading questions” is supposed to engage the students, and encourage them to think about the material presented. I suppose it is preferable to only lectures, all the time. But as a teacher and a student, I feel strongly that ‘leading questions’ do not engage the mind in a critical thinking capacity. There are two different ways leading questions can be used, according to the material being presented, and they are not helpful in either case.

For questions that deal with facts and problem solving (like asking what the next step is in a math problem): If the student has been paying attention to the material, he’ll grasp the concept without leading questions. Asking such questions will waste time and make the student angry at teachers who seem to think he’s dumb. If the student hasn’t been paying attention to the material, they won’t be able to answer the leading questions. Asking them will waste time and make the student feel ashamed and humiliated, which is really unnecessary in a low-stakes game like School.

For questions that are of a more subjective nature (like asking what effect a certain battle had on a war, or something about the symbolism in a novel): asking leading questions is like implanting your thoughts (which are not really even yours, but belong to the group who designed the curriculum) into the student’s head. She is not allowed to grapple with the primary text and draw her own conclusions. Therefore, she is deprived of the chance to think for herself and instead learns to unquestioningly accept how authority figures instruct her to interpret data. We can see the repercussions of this effect when Americans blindly believe the rantings of political pundits, or they succumb to a high-pressure sales pitch and sign up for a mortgage they can’t afford.

Leading questions presume there’s only one way to get to the right answer. “Think how I think,” you’re saying. “Otherwise it’s wrong!” A few times I was embarrassed at the board when doing math sections with my SAT prep class. I’d ask the students, “What next?” or “What approach should we use here?” and one of the students who was rather stronger in math than I was would give me an answer other than the “right” one I was expecting. I’d say, “No, I don’t think that would work.” And she’d patiently walk me through it to show me that there was, in fact, more than one way to solve this problem. Pretty humbling. When we dictate how students should think about a problem, we encourage standardization of thought, which in turn produces a homogeneous, manageable population with the exact same inevitable blind spots.

In addition, it is condescending to ask someone a question you already know the answer to. You’re not asking the question for your own edification, or because you’re interested in the student’s unique perspective. You’re asking in order to test her. You’re asking her to prove her intelligence to you, over and over. It implies a lack of trust in her capabilities. And when a teacher implies that a student’s intelligence is not reliable, that student loses trust in herself as well.

Leading questions do not foster real learning. They merely turn an eager student into Clever Hans–you know, the horse that could supposedly do math, but who had actually learned to respond to visual cues provided by his trainer and the audience. John Holt made the case in his excellent book, How Children Fail, that most students, instead of learning the subject matter, learn how to please the teacher. While this can be a useful skill, I don’t think a generation of sycophants will serve society well in the future. Raising children to be responsible citizens and independent adults requires that we allow their thinking processes to develop in their own time. If we constantly “lead” our students, they can only learn how be followers.



  1. I am not a teacher, but I had a number of those experiences as a student. I guess the chance to show off was what kept me paying attention. I would like to hear how teachers feel about this technique.

    I also remember a case study at Harvard Business School sitting next to my fiance who was a sky decker (sat in the top back row making a lot of wise cracks). I was visiting him and the case was about a company trying to figure out how to raise cash without additional issuance of stock or debt. The company was afraid to reduce their rather high dividend. Those HBS’ers argued and argued about which alternative to take. I whispered that that should just start a dividend reinvestment program. My husband to be said, “Naw.” As if that could not possibly be the choice. I was too afraid to speak up though and make my case since I was just visiting. At the end of the class, the professor revealed that the company did a dividend reinvestment program and raised enough cash to solve their problem.

    Case studies really do lend themselve to leading questions. This in turn may help people to think outside the box. However, this example was about graduate school. Maybe it is different for younger students. Maybe it is just a matter of skill in presenting the questions to open up minds to other possibilities.

    However, you make a good point. Just leading questions that go on and on with no one getting the right answer are a waste of time.

    Comment by Rebecca G — August 10, 2009 @ 8:39 am | Reply

  2. […] behavior.  He argues that students mainly learn how to please the teacher.  As I mentioned in a previous article, many teachers spend a lot of class time trying to get students to jump through an exact sequence […]

    Pingback by How I Learned to Write, Part 1 « Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher — September 4, 2009 @ 8:43 pm | Reply

  3. The other issue is that you might inadvertently teach incorrect facts. When he said, “No,” to things like whether the publisher was from Virginia etc. was he saying “No that’s not the particular answer I want” or “No, he really isn’t from Virginia.”

    You really have to be careful what you say no to.

    Comment by uninvoked — October 10, 2009 @ 12:45 am | Reply

    • Good point! That reminds me of a history teacher I had who never put True/False statements on the test, because she said we might remember the false statements and get them mixed up with the true ones.

      And it’s always frustrating when you say something that is correct, but you get shut down because it wasn’t the exact piece of information the teacher was looking for. Thanks for your comment!

      Comment by christinag503 — October 17, 2009 @ 8:29 pm | Reply

  4. Great article. There are so many things here teachers could learn from. Many believe they are expanding the students’ mind and are not “hand feeding” them information, however, as you stated above, instructors are doing the exact opposite. I might even have to send this link to a few past teachers of mine.

    Comment by Zach — March 28, 2010 @ 4:29 pm | Reply

    • I agree, it is tricky to deliver lessons AND engage students’ minds. Perhaps if we let them learn things that THEY choose, based on interest, relevance, and usefulness to their daily lives, we wouldn’t have to resort to strategies to get them to pay attention.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Zach!


      Comment by christinag503 — March 29, 2010 @ 1:29 am | Reply

  5. I don’t think comprehension-based questions are always out of line. Kids who didn’t understand the basic facts of the topic being studied aren’t going to be able to respond intelligently to a higher-level thinking question (I have many, many students, for example, whose first language isn’t English; I need to know for sure that they have a grip on the topic of study before they can be asked for their opinions on the bigger questions. “Do you think the Civil War could have been prevented” is not a useful question if the occurrences leading up to the war have flown straight over the student’s head.

    That said, “NO!” is a rotten answer for a teacher to give a student. A completely incorrect response (let’s say the student has provided a date in their answer that was 100 years off the mark) can’t go by uncorrected, because some other class members that are struggling may tuck that date into their notes, which makes them even more confused. I prefer “Thanks for taking the risk, but we needed a different date in there.” I give points for class participation, and students know that any serious attempt (i.e., something other than a wisecrack or a bathroom request) will get them participation points.

    A student who is at a loss and cannot answer a question at all, should be given a moment to confer with surrounding students before responding. Then it’s a good idea to ask someone else to defend or attack the response.

    Turn and talk (in which everyone has a partner and a designation of partner 1 and partner 2) is a great way to get kids involved in discussion. If partner 1 is telling partner 2 their answer (and the teacher is puttering around listening in), more people are having to respond. Then maybe 2 or 3 answers get shared, and we move on.

    If a student provides a response which contains correct information or is off topic, repeating the question is (of course) much better than “NO!”

    Comment by Sue — August 21, 2010 @ 5:28 pm | Reply

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