Stupid Questions : Learn to Love Getting Stuff Wrong

Lots of question marks. Don't be afraid to ask questions! Image by Kerbstone, FreeImages.com

“There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.” That nugget of wisdom, often attributed to Carl Sagan, reminds us to keep seeking knowledge, even if we make (sometimes very public) mistakes.

And nothing feels more public and exposed than whole group or class teaching. That gut-churning anticipation will be familiar to most of us. Waiting your turn to speak in front of your peers, especially on new subjects we are only just getting to grips with, can really bring out the sweats!

Back into the Fray

Lately, I’ve had to contend with it all again myself. I’ve side-stepped back into uni study with a brand new subject. Exciting, but just a bit scary when you’re in a class with others who seem so confident and clued up already. 

No matter that the group is just ten or so fellow students. The pressure to get it right and sound, at least vaguely, like I know what I’m talking about, feels immense each session. I listen closely, half-formulate a handful of ideas, but feel afraid to let them out. Maybe it will just be incoherent babble? Maybe I will be outed as the one in class who doesn’t quite get it? If I ask my stupid questions, will my cover be blown?

By the time I’ve worked out what I’ll say, how I’ll say it, and somehow found the nerve to try, somebody else has taken the mic.

Lessons from Languages

I’d have left it at that, perhaps, struggling along with my impostor syndrome, if it hadn’t been for the flip-side of that very experience at the same time. For as well as that brand new subject, I also started a course in something totally new, but also very familiar: a language learning class.

That language is Swahili, a language which is quite a departure for me. Now, I have zero experience with Bantu languages. Nearly all my language learning experience is with Indo-European tongues. In short, I come to class with very little pre-knowledge – much like my other course above.

The difference?

I have no fear speaking out and asking questions – even if I’m not 100% sure of myself!

Any Questions?

So there I was, every week, dreading my non-language class, whilst looking forward to my conversation class in equal measure. I had to get to the bottom of this to garner some tips to carry over to the other class. I needed to find out what was so different about Swahili class. And it is something very particular to language learning:

Embracing the art of getting it wrong.

After years of evenings classes and iTalki lessons, I’m used to just giving it a go. I try to speak up whenever I can, even if what I say isn’t perfect. Chiefly, it’s wanting to make the most of the chance to communicate, which is the joy of learning together. We throw things out there – they may not be perfectly formed – but then, with the instructor, we bash them around until they start to take on a neater shape.

With languages in particular, there is that extra veil of difficulty. It’s the notion that languages are generally just a bit harder, a bit more challenging. After all, they involve whole new ways of communicating. That challenge somehow makes us more accepting of the fact that we’ll stumble repeatedly. But in reality, those other subjects that scare us are also new ways to communicate too. We shouldn’t be surprised if they also take some trial and error.

Accepting that makes the whole business of asking questions – whether you think they are stupid or not – a lot less high stakes.

Get Stuff Wrong!

So how to take this forward? Remember that nobody expects perfection from students. After all, if students were perfect, there would be no need for classes and professors. If you’ve done the lesson prep and homework, you have more than enough to guide your questions and contributions.

This isn’t about simply not caring whether you’re right or wrong. Rather, it’s finding the fun and utility in getting things wrong. When we make mistakes, we laugh about them in class. Not malicious or mean laughter, but a knowing giggle – yes, it’s funny to mix up the words for mango and person, but we’ll never forget them again after that.

Learn to love getting stuff wrong – those stupid questions are actually a fast track to improvement.

Richard West-Soley

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