In short, ‘yes’ – actually, millions of ’em.

I was pondering this classic after seeing the tweet below a few days ago, when I came to the same conclusion that I always have, i.e., that not only is the answer definitively ‘yes’, but that the very question, ‘Are there any stupid questions?‘, is actually one of them!

Stupid Questions?

Before I go off, let me get this caveat out of the way first. As a successful, experienced and dedicated educator of nearly a quarter of a century, I have/will always, dutifully answer EVERY question that any student asks of me and I will continue to encourage a culture of questioning, but sometimes the right answer to a question is, ‘Sorry, but that’s the wrong question!’

So why bring this up now? Well I see a clear link between it and the fanatical march toward inquiry based approaches to teaching science that are hailed as the new panacea. How so? Here’s my take.

As far as I can tell (and it’s not all that easy to decipher), the concept of inquiry based learning in science is founded upon a couple of ideas. Firstly that a process of student ‘self-discovery’ and constructivism will lead to a deeper understanding of scientific principles than can otherwise be achieved via direct instruction, and secondly that subject (content) knowledge is totally secondary in its importance to the process. OK, sounds all well and good in theory, but in reality that’s not how science works.

Meaningful scientific discoveries, even those that happen by accident (and there are plenty of those), are not based upon blindly groping around in the dark, asking random, meaningless and pointless questions that are based upon no prior knowledge or logical hypothesis. Wild guesswork, in the form of wacko, ‘stupid’ questions, is nothing short of the equivalent of being a cartoon scientist randomly throwing chemicals together in a shed at the bottom of the garden, hoping that some elixir will result – it’s not part of the scientific process.

Science is not advanced in vacuum, it’s advanced by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants‘ which means knowing stuff, i.e., having knowledge, BEFORE the questions begin; i.e., it STARTS with content.

Far too much of the ever increasingly vaunted scientific inquiry method encourages practices that are at best inefficient, and at worst, simply unscientific. Too often they actually promote the idea that knowledge is not important (when nothing could be further from the truth) and they are usually agonizingly slow in their delivery (leading to far too little exposure to content).

Does that mean that those of us who favor direct instruction over inquiry think that asking questions should be discouraged? Of course not. We all know that at the very heart of scientific discovery lies the need to constantly question and probe, but we also know that inquisitiveness needs to be tempered with (and by), factual content and solid logical hypotheses that will in turn make questions the meaningful and targeted type, not the totally open-ended, hopeful, buckshot variety. Questions must be based upon certain fundamental, basic knowledge that has to be learned! Yes, good old-fashioned learning, followed by more expansive thinking.

The world’s current and future scientific problems will not be solved by ‘out of the box’, ‘innovative’ thinking alone, that’s NOT how science works. However, they can be solved by smart people that use their sound, factual knowledge and understanding in innovative ways – there is a big difference between those things and the knowledge must come first. I believe that in high school, even with the brightest and best students (the innovative, if you will), we are still putting that fundamental knowledge in place – in short, in high school, content and knowledge should come first.

Inquiry can certainly be valuable when it promotes the idea of how to do science, but it must not be at the expense of content, it should not be the central plank and essence of science teaching, and it is not necessary to apply it in every situation. If one does, we simply supplant one perceived problem (superficial understanding) with another (a hopeless lack of hard, factual, content knowledge); that’s not the answer.