Dumb Questions? Aren't They All?

I was labeled an “airhead” in high school. Until today, I’ve avoided telling people that. The moniker had a real negative effect on me.

I was known as the kid who asks dumb questions. If my peers wanted to waste the last five minutes of class and not have to start another topic, they’d whisper at me, “Ask one of your dumb questions.”

“There are no dumb questions.”

If you’ve never said these words, email me now and I’ll send you $10.

You’ve said them, haven’t you?

Yup – we all have.

The fact is that every question is a dumb question. Because someone else knows the answer.

And the more people who know the answer, the dumber the question is. And the more valuable it is to ask it.

Just because everyone knows the answer to a question, doesn’t mean it’s the right answer. It’s just the safe answer.

I asked a question with an obvious answer.

The story of how I earned my “airhead” nickname is a rather curious one. It happened like this:

We had a guest speaker, a grownup, in our debate class. He was explaining details of the debate topic, which involved transporting water across some distance.

He drew a series of pumps and downward sloping pipes on the chalk board. He explained that water had to be pumped up every so many feet so it could continue traveling the decline.

I watched and listened. I wondered why they didn’t just pump the water straight through a horizontal pipe.

I asked, “So why do the pipes have to be tilted?”

The grownup responded with a snicker, “Because water runs downhill.”

In retrospect, it is clear to me that I was dealing with an idiot. He lacked the novel thought, as well as nurturing behavior, to wonder what a 14 year old might be thinking when she asked the question.

My classmates joined in on the grownup’s joke. “Wow, you don’t know that water runs downhill,” they jeered, “What an airhead!”

Who knows what would have happened…

Suppose that grownup would have encouraged my line of questioning.

“The pipes have to be tilted because we let gravity do most of the work.”

“But why can’t we just pump it straight through horizontal pipes?”

“It’s not efficient to do it that way.”

“What does it mean to be efficient? Do we have numbers on that?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe that bears some investigation.”

Perhaps I would have proposed that we create a pumping system so powerful, and efficient, that we didn’t need thousands of pumping stations? That might have led to other innovations.

There’s no telling.

And yet his snide remark, which gave the other students encouragement to be mean, shut down all routes of novel thinking for me.

At least in that class.

The airhead learns best.

Novel thought – creative thought – is the foundation of innovation. It’s the foundation of learning.

In math, thinking outside the proverbial box is an efficient way for a student to learn. Asking crazy, airheaded, dumb questions gets a student thinking about all sorts of things.

The effort put into this novel thinking to solve a math problem will seem high. But the depth and breadth of a student’s understanding when they do this is incredible.

And that understanding will carry to other things – decreasing the effort to learn even more!

So why not be an airhead?

Kids start out being airheads – thinking novelly and creatively. And grownups (like the guest speaker in the debate class) have an uncanny knack for destroying it.

When your kids ask a dumb question, refrain from being a grownup. Ignore the fact that everyone knows the answer to that. See what happens.

Encourage your kids to ask dumb questions. Give prizes for the most dumb question of the day – the one that sparks the most novel and innovative thinking.


By the way, my peers continued this nonsense for years. It might be easy for me to say that I stopped wasting my dumb questions on those idiots. But in fact, they were just as squashed as I was.

They were covertly given permission to do it by our teachers (except for Mr. Berkebile), therefore they continued.

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One Response to Dumb Questions? Aren't They All?

  1. I really like your point here. One of my best experiences teaching was when a student asked a creative question that led to a discovery for both of us. It was great, and that is definitely the thinking and questioning that we need more of.

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