Today is a special day because I asked my first ever question in a lecture of 70 people. The lecture was on Sociology of Power SC3205, a lecture conducted by Professor Kurtulus Gemici. To foreigners in the United States or United Kingdom, this may seem like a queer thing to be proud of. Yet, to me, a Singaporean, who grew up in an environment where everyone is used to “shut up and listen” in lectures, I am pretty darn happy about it.
To clarify, it is not that teachers in my secondary school and junior college do not encourage us asking questions in lectures. But what hindered many of us (at least for me) was the fear of looking and sounding stupid for asking stupid questions. Eventually, it became such that when teachers ask, “So, does anyone have any question?”, it actually translated to “So, I know that nobody is going to ask but I am going to ask anyway… does anyone have any question?… If not, that’s all for today. Yay, time for a break!”
In fact, what’s really upsetting about these scenarios is not when students fail to speak up when they had questions, but when students eventually stop questioning the materials they were presented with. The silence did not come from a lack of courage. Instead, it came from a lack of curiosity and inquiry.
So today’s episode made me pleasantly surprised not only because I asked a question, but also because I had a question that I cared enough and felt strongly enough to ask.
But one important point to raise is that my little “milestone” today was probably less attributed to my personal growth in thought and courage, and attributed more to the environment I was in. First, learning in university, I believe, gives room for so much more independent thought and that is a privilege that I am truly thankful for. Choosing topics that I am interested in (independently of my friends’ interests) and going to lectures alone can be quite an enjoyable experience because you get the actual physical space, and also mental space during lectures to ponder about issues that matter to you, and you alone.
Secondly, and more importantly, the environment of the lecture was extremely comfortable for open discussion. This is attributed mainly to my professor, who emphasised from day one that he encourages all of us to participate. He also made it clear that he is more than happy to hear us ask stupid questions. Because, more often than not, the questions we ask may not be as stupid as we think they are. He also assured us that we can ask questions at any point of time, even if that means that we may have to break his flow of lectures sometimes.
I love his attitude towards teaching because that is exactly what I think education should be. Asking questions is the key to learning because it unlocks a wealth of knowledge that we would otherwise not have known.
At this point of time, I would like to bring in an extract from the article “Standardised testing: the scourge of student life“, written by a senior of mine, Chan Chi Ling, for Standford Daily:
“Looking back on my education, the moments of insight and learning that I hold on to most dearly came about not because a test told me what I “needed to know,” or when I lost a point where I shouldn’t have. They were those that came as a result of inquiry into questions that excited me — questions that certainly do not end with test timers forcing me to put down my pen.”
Just like my professor, I truly believe in the notion that there are no stupid questions. As a tuition teacher myself, I experience at first hand, questions that are deceivingly so simple which are so difficult to answer.
To quote an example, to the question of “Why is blood red?”, it is very tempting to answer, “Because it just is! Can’t you see it for yourself?” But in actual fact, there is another question embedded in this particular question, which is “What are the components of blood which makes it red?”, to which I would have to answer that blood carries red blood cells which are red, and that red blood cells contain haemoglobin which gives it its red colour. (Then, my student was smart enough to ask further, “What makes haemoglobin red?” and I would have to admit my inadequacy in knowledge and tell her that I will get back to her next lesson.)
This is why, when a friend of mine responded to the feelings of pride I felt today with “So, did you get participation points?”, I felt an inexplicable sense of uneasiness. After writing this article, I think I understand why now. This is because, no matter how much we have been taught as students that participation points are important in terms of our grades (even my professor emphasised so in our first lecture), I still believe that it should never, ever, override a deep sense of quest for learning.
As much as participation points can motivate students to speak up to some extent, real and meaningful discussions only come about when students are engaged, when they are asking questions that they “wanted to ask” and not what they are “made to ask”. The best students are learners who seeks knowledge for the sake of it.
Idealistic as I always am, I hope that this is the kind of learner that I am, and will always strive to be.