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Questions with a morally wrong answer

I think asking students questions is an important part of my job of helping students succeed. Good questions can help me see where they are in their journey so I can choose how to guide them to the next step, or can help to make clear the skills they already have that will help them figure things out for themselves. But there is a class of questions that shuts all of this down immediately. Here are some examples:

  • “Did you go to the lecture?”
  • “Have you started yet?”
  • “How many of the exercises have you done?”

These questions all have answers that are morally Right or Wrong. The answers a student gives make the student out to be a Good Student or a Bad Student. And if a student has the Wrong Answer, they will feel ashamed.

I know many people who believe it is very important to send students the message that they should go to lectures, start assignments straight away, and do all the exercises. While these are all things students could do to help themselves, they’re not the most important thing to focus on when they are here seeking support from me. They can’t change any of those things right now, so all a question like those does is make them feel ashamed. And, as Turnaround for Children CEO Pam Canto says in this blog post, “shame is toxic to positive outcomes”.

Shame is the feeling that you are a bad person, that there is something wrong with you. Guilt is a bad feeling about your actions, which is unpleasant, but may make you want to change those actions in the future. Shame is the next level, where you feel you have been exposed as the horrible person you really are. A person who feels shame won’t try to change their actions, they’ll just try to avoid situations that expose them, which will just make the problem worse. I don’t want this to happen to my students, and I certainly don’t want them to think that seeking support from me will expose them to shame, or they will decide not to seek help.

Once upon a time, I realised that I was causing a student shame, and I decided that I would give myself a new principle.

Never ask a question that has a morally wrong answer.

This is one of the rules I use to evaluate if my question is useful and choose a better alternative.

For example, I could ask “Did you go to the lecture?”, but there is definitely an answer to this question that is morally wrong and having to give that answer will cause shame. Do I really want to know if they went to the lecture? How will that help? Maybe what I really want to know is what the lecturer has to say about the topic, since that might be useful. In that case, I could ask “What did the lecturer have to say about this?” The student doesn’t have to reveal their attendance status to answer this question, thus avoiding the shame. Even better would be to avoid the awkward moment where they have to reveal they don’t know, and say, “It would be useful to know what the lecturer says about this. Can you tell me what they said, or tell me where we might go looking for that?”

For my second shame-inducing question of “Have you started yet?”, the first simple fix is to remove the “yet”. That implies they should have started already. The second fix is to think about why I want to know this? Maybe I want to know what they’ve done already so we can build on it. In that case I could just ask “What have you done so far?”, since that’s directly asking for the information I want. But there is still an implication that they should have done something, so causing shame if they have to reveal they’ve done nothing. So instead I could ask “What are you thinking about this problem?” or maybe “How do you feel about this problem?”. These let me get into their head and heart and I can help them move on from there. I might be able to ask them about what they’ve done so far later, or it might not even be important because they’ll tell me what they need to help themselves.

This second example highlights another principle, which is to ask open ended questions, preferably about student thoughts and feelings. This makes it much easier to ask questions without morally wrong answers, because there are no specific predetermined answers in particular! (Asking open-ended questions is actually one of the factors in SQWIGLES, the guide for action I give to myself and my staff at the MLC.)

So, I urge you, think about whether the questions you ask have a morally wrong answer, and if so, try a more open-ended question that is less likely to cause the shame that is so toxic to success.

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2 Responses

  1. Todd Feitelson says:

    Thanks for this, David. I appreciate as always the attention you give to the details of your interactions with your students. It can be excruciating to have to consider every word you speak, but it’s really important. It’s a big source of stress and anxiety for me. But, it’s critical.

    I do wonder about the difference between a direct question (“Were you at the lecture?”) and a less-direct question (“Can you tell me what the lecturer said?”) As you stated, you want to avoid that awkward moment when the student might have to admit not being there, but it feels way more awkward (almost like a trap) to ask the indirect question. For me, setting up the situation and relationship where the direct question can be seen as just a way to gather the information without judgement is the trick. My goal can be to get that all out on the table and move forward, with the student seeing me (I hope) as an ally.

    I’m dealing with younger students, but there is also some value in helping students see that going to the lecture is a valuable tool in learning. It’s water under the bridge once they’re asking for help, but they are asking for help, so it seems important to help them learn for the next time. In a shame-free way — that’s the challenge.

    (Somewhat irrelevantly, it reminds me of what my English teacher wife wants to say when kids come and ask her how to improve their vocabulary scores on standardized tests — “Have read a lot since you were ten.” Not so helpful, so she remains positive and forward-looking, and avoids the shaming.)

    Thanks for writing!

    • David Butler says:

      Very helpful thoughts Todd. A decent relationship where you can ask questions to keep them accountable is definitely something that is desirable. For me, this is usually the first time I’ve met them so I don’t have that luxury. I will say that when I have used “It would be good to know what the lecturer said…” and we’ve looked it up, then they often say later that going to the lecture or at least consulting the notes is the thing they learned today.

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