Jeremy Côté

Safe Questions

The process of learning with another person is a tricky thing. When you’re on your own, it’s fine to ask as many dumb questions as you can come up with. After all, nobody is going to judge you, since you can simply look up the answer in a book or online. As such, learning by yourself is safe (though it can be slow).

On the other hand, I’ve come to realize how vulnerable you can feel while learning with another person. One person holds the knowledge of a subject (the teacher), while the other is hoping to gain knowledge (the student). However, there’s the added complication that the student doesn’t want to appear stupid in front of the teacher. One reason might be that the student respects the teacher, but a more general reason is that we don’t want to appear less intelligent to anyone. This is only exacerbated when you’re in a large class. Even though this worry is mostly unfounded, we stress about how others will perceive us.

As a student, I’ve felt this firsthand. Even though I work hard and understand a small amount in my field, I can’t help but think that others might judge me if I start exposing the limits of my intellect. It’s a useless worry because the groups I’m a part of are quite supportive, but this doesn’t lessen the anxiety I feel.

This has made me reflect on the kinds of learning environments we create. Are we thinking about how safe the environment is? Sure, we want to have teachers that are knowledgeable, but I would argue that those who can create a safe environment for learning are much more valuable.

There’s one particular aspect of the learning process that I think encapsulates how students think of a teacher: how teachers ask questions. What kind of tone do they use for the question? Do they make it seem like this is an inquisition, or is it a question to guide the student along? Is the question at an appropriate level? Perhaps most importantly, what kind of reaction does the teacher have when a student gives an answer that is partially (or totally) wrong?

These seem like questions which can be answered by instinct, but I think that’s leaving a huge opportunity on the table. If you’re not thinking about the way you ask students questions, you’re probably not doing your best work.

I’ve had a variety of teachers in my life, and some were better than others at asking questions. It could be nerve-wracking at times to answer a question, because you knew that the teacher would shred your answer if you were wrong. I’ve also had classes in which no one would answer questions. I would argue that this is a sign of not creating a safe environment.1

Flipping the script

As a tutor, I get the opportunity to see this play out from the other side of the equation. When I work with students, I try to ask them questions in order to figure out if they understand the topic we’re covering. What I’ve realized is that I haven’t approached this with the idea of creating a safe learning environment.

Each time I ask a question, I don’t care if they get it wrong. I don’t judge them or think less of them if they can’t answer a question. However, what I understand now is that this doesn’t matter to them. To them, they want to avoid looking “bad” in front of me anyway. As such, if I probe this area of weakness, it’s quite painful to accept that they don’t fully understand it. I’m basing this off of my own experience as a student, but I don’t think it’s a huge leap to say that others feel the same.

When I’m the student, I know that the teacher has my best interests in mind (for the most part). This isn’t a huge comfort though, and I still try to not expose any weakness. As such, I shouldn’t be surprised if students feel the same way when they work with me.

I’m fully aware that I need to ask questions in order to help them learn. It’s inevitable that they will get some of these questions wrong. However, I’m realizing now that perhaps a crucial first step is to make them comfortable with me. In essence, they need to not only intellectually know that they are in a safe learning environment, but feel it too. I don’t have answers for this yet, but I’m hoping to learn more as I continue teaching.

I suspect that the length of time I work with a student helps foster this feeling of safety. If I’ve worked with a student for two years, there’s a good chance they will be comfortable with me compared to a student who only just began with me. That being said, I’m interested in learning new ways to foster this feeling, because I think it can really help.

If you’re a teacher of any kind, please think about how you’re structuring your sessions to encourage safe learning. It might sound like an odd thing, but having students be unafraid to try an answer that they are unsure about is a fantastic thing. Getting to that point though doesn’t come for free, and requires some work. By prioritizing a safe learning environment, you’re sending the message to students that the questions you ask aren’t designed to expose their weaknesses to every other student, but are there to help them grow.

The more we think about how we ask our students questions, the better we can connect with them. And isn’t that what we want, in the end?

  1. Of course, I’ve also had many other classes in which the class (including myself) was just lethargic or lazy, and didn’t want to answer questions.