Friday, February 17, 2012

Stupid Questions

There was a time in my life when I was a teacher.  I taught biology, mostly vertebrate anatomy and animal behavior, at a university.  I have never really taught a riding lesson, but I still have an understanding, and a sympathy, for those that do.

I remember very well the first day of every one of my classes.  I would begin my lecture, staring out into a sea of blank faces.  I was winging it, really.  I didn't know them, they didn't know me.  I had no clue how to speak to them, how to transmit my knowledge to them.  So I always made sure to tell them, in that first lecture, to never be afraid to ask questions.  I would tell them that "the only stupid question is the one you don't ask".

I learned that lesson when I was just an ignorant undergrad.  I was a biology major, and one course was taught by a professor who was notoriously difficult. Of course, this was a class that was required for graduation.  You had to pass it to get your degree.

This professor was brilliant, a genius on a level that was far beyond us undergrads.  He was far beyond most of his peers.  His lectures always ended up being a stream of consciousness.  He would start talking about a subject, and then his passion would carry him away to the point where no mere undergrad could understand his lectures.

Most of my fellow students were intimidated by him.  They thought that he would think they were stupid if they interrupted his lectures to ask a question.  It just so happens that I am lacking that part of the brain that tells you that you should care what other people think.  And so, I questioned that professor.  I threw my hand up in the middle of a class and said "Wait!!  You're going to fast, I don't understand!". 

And it turns out, in spite of his outward appearance, that he didn't mind being questioned.  He didn't even know that he was talking over our heads, because no one had ever told him that.  Because I questioned him when I didn't understand him, he slowed his lectures down.   I got an a good grade in his class and became one of his favorite students.  Once I realized that he was actually quite nice and very knowledgeable, and not the Evil Draconian Professor stereotype that others thought he was,  I took every class he taught.  I learned so much from him, simply because I questioned him.  In later years, when I moved from being a student of that university to being an employee, he became my friend and mentor.  He remains a good friend to this day. 

And so, when I stood in front of my own group of students, I remembered what I had learned from my friend and mentor.  I made sure to tell them to always question me, because that was the best way to learn.  Of course, they never believed me at first.  I always gave those first few lectures to a sea of blank faces.  I was just as uncertain as they were.  Were they understanding me?  Was I reaching them?  Or, was I just going off on my own tangent... was I blindly talking over their heads?

But, then one student would raise their hand and ask a question.  And I would respond, because their question ignited my passion.  And then it wasn't just a lecture anymore, it was a discussion.  The students were active participants.  And we all learned.

I apply the same rationale to my riding lessons.  I don't just sit there, trying to blindly follow orders if I don't understand them.  I have never been a person to blindly follow orders, anyway.  I question everything.  This is not a fault, so long as you actually listen to the answer.  And I have rarely ridden under anyone who found that disagreeable.  For the most part, I have found that trainers want you to ask questions.  No matter how stupid you think the question might be, the simple act of asking it means that you are listening to the teacher and trying to process the lesson.

There have been many, many times when I didn't understand something in a riding lesson.  And, when I don't understand, I stop and ask for clarification.  I don't care about looking stupid.  Why should I?  I'm the student, by definition I am stupid.  Well, perhaps ignorant and not necessarily stupid, but still... They are the teacher and I am the student.  My questions are valid and worthwhile, and they enrich both of our experiences:  I understand the instruction better, and the instructor learns how to communicate the lesson better.

So, don't be afraid to speak up!  What do you have to lose?  If your trainer gets indignant at your question, you know to move on to a new trainer!  But, the more likely scenario is that your trainer will perk up and respond to your question.  And then it won't just be a lecture anymore, it will be a discussion.  And everyone will learn.

Question everything.  Every question has value.  The only stupid question is the question you don't ask.


  1. Excellent advice. It surprises me how few people take it.

  2. Great post and high praise for the lesson from a fellow teacher.

    My best riding teachers have always been open to questions, but I have ridden with a few who kind of take the "just do it" philosophy. Suffice it say it's usually the last time I ride with them.

  3. Boy, do I HATE the new method Blogger is using for word verification before I can post. Glad I turned off that feature on my blog.

  4. Great post. I absolutely agree with everything you say. If you don't ask questions about something you don't understand how will you learn to do it correctly. I've always wanted to take it a step further and find out why it should be done a certain way too. Don't just follow blindly without a good explanation.

    I can't believe how hard blogger is making it to leave a comment either. I get so much spam I can't turn mine off.

  5. Great post. People who ask questions and process the answer learn more. I always ask questions in lessons and I am frustrated by students who do not ask questions.

  6. Such an excellent post! And you are so right...understanding is key.


Thanks for your comments! I love them, even though I'm really bad at replying. (Sorry! I always say I'm going to work on that, but then I get distracted...... Hey is that a squirrel?)

I've turned off the word verification because it's hard to read and annoying. But, I'm also too lazy to approve comments, so now it's a free for all. Please note: If you spam my blog, I will spam you back. Literally. I will hunt you down and pelt you with canned meat until you beg for mercy. So, please, no spam!


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