Questions, Lawyers, and Teachers

This will be my last regularly scheduled post for the time being. My writing time and much of my brainpower is being taken up by other projects, and I would rather return to this blog when I am back in the proper mindset than just post a never-ending parade of links (which I could do, but which other people do already and do better).

Today’s post:

I’ve heard it said that one of the rules of being a lawyer is that you never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer. The job of a lawyer is not to find out the truth – it’s to argue a particular point. To that end, a lawyer may perhaps wish to unveil the truth, but not to discover it. Discovering the truth mid-trial is a rarity that usually indicates that a client has been ill-prepared to take the stand. Never ask a question when you don’t know the answer.

For a teacher, the rule is very different: never ask a question to which you intend to provide the answer.

Don’t ask a factual question thinking, “if they don’t answer in 30 seconds I’ll step in.” Don’t ask an opinion question with the intent of bringing up your own opinion. Rhetorical questions should be treated as real questions, and should be given a good once-over by the class to decide whether they accept the rhetorical answer. In short – ask your students questions and expect them to answer.

If they don’t know the answer, help them find it. Show them a path, hint at the location, avoid fishing expeditions. But don’t spoon-feed it to them, because it robs them of agency.

The legal system is filled with pre-answered questions in order to take the agency away from the actors in the courtroom – the lawyers, the plaintiff and defendant, the witnesses – and give that agency to the decision-makers. Lawyers, defendants, and witnesses are set dressing, playing out predetermined parts by the time the trial comes around. The judge and/or jury are given agency. They are the ones who are able to make decisions and act in ways that (barring certain philosophies being accurate) are not predetermined.

In a classroom, students need agency.

Asking questions to which you provide or intend to provide the answer robs students of their agency. It makes their actions less meaningful. Perhaps more importantly, it neuters their thoughts. Regardless of the accuracy or depth of their thoughts, you make it clear that other thoughts are more valuable. Perhaps your thoughts, perhaps aged words of wisdom, but certainly not theirs. With the benefit of thought thus removed, with the carrot off the string, there is no point to forward intellectual progress.

There is also a corollary that I learned from my thesis advisor: never answer a question that you think your students can answer for themselves. This, too, teaches them that your authority is the only source of wisdom and knowledge, and robs them of the ability to create their own. Deciding when your students can or cannot answer their own questions is tough, but I like to err on the side of “don’t answer.” As a teacher, you have to be ok with students not knowing the answer at the end of the school day.

It’s only when people don’t know the answer that they’re willing to search for it.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on July 6, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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