Hands up if you still question what you are told

Children starting school constantly ask ‘why’, but they soon learn that questions are deemed ‘stupid’ by an education system that demands conformity, and this fear of being sceptical continues into adulthood, writes Clodagh Finn.

THE late American writer Gore Vidal said: “I’ve never met a boring five-year-old”. At the end of this back-to-school week, teachers all over the country might agree. However exhausted they are after meeting their new charges, it’s unlikely they found the school newbies short on curiosity, rascality or enthusiasm. The children were probably full of questions, too, because they know that the world is run on questions — not on answers.

The rest of us, though, have forgotten that. A father I know limits his bright-as-a-button son to five questions per session, and I wonder how teachers manage in classrooms that are the largest in Europe. The average class size at primary level in Ireland is 25. Let’s do the maths; even if you limited each child to five questions per day, that’s a staggering 125 questions.

An ordinary morning might sound like this: “Miss, why is the sky blue?” “Sir, who minded Adam and Eve when they were children?” “Miss, why do we have to be baptised to secure a school place?” If we allowed our beautiful, smart, unboring five-year-olds to ask as many questions as they liked, the school day would be so much more interesting, but totally unmanageable.

That’s why children learn not to ask too many questions, and why, to return to the wicked wit of Vidal, there are no dull five-year-olds and no interesting 15-year-olds. He was being terribly unfair, but he had a point when he wondered what happened to children between the ages of five and 15.

Hands up if you still question what you are told

When we kiss a bubbly, bright-eyed five-year-old goodbye at the school gate, we are feeding them into one end of a machine that spits out useful, conforming citizens 14 years later. It’s like making sausages — it doesn’t matter what each one is made of, we package them all to look the same.

Thankfully, the system doesn’t work as well as it might. Even with the dead weight of the CAO points race, teachers make a valiant effort to produce rounded, interested (and interesting) students. And students, bless them, will always kick back against convention, though perhaps not half as much as they should. At least the classroom is a much more child-friendly place than it used to be. I remember starting school in the dim, dark, unenlightened days of the 1970s and wondering why all the toys — brightly painted rocking horses, dolls’ houses, and wooden drums — were kept under a layer of heavy-duty plastic on the classroom’s perimeter.

They were unveiled only when the school inspector (the dreaded cigire) came to visit and, to this day, I’m sorry I didn’t ask why that was so.

We didn’t dare ask, of course, not in an era when we were encouraged to put an index finger over our mouths to stop idle chat. That never quite worked, but we did stop asking “foolish” questions.

If I had my time again, I’d ask more “stupid” questions. The world would be a very different place if children didn’t stop asking questions, stupid or otherwise. Though, I’m of the persuasion that there is no such thing as a stupid question.

But children do stop asking questions. There isn’t time for them in the school day. Or, the questions are pushed to the end of the lesson and forgotten, or cut short by the bell, or they’re deemed unsuitable. It is a sad and terrible omission that has far-reaching consequences.

When people talk of the faults of the education system, rote learning is trotted out as the supreme sin against enlightenment. Really? How can it be so wrong to learn an irregular French verb off by heart?

You can’t Google “avoir” every time you want to use it in polite holiday conversation. Our command of foreign languages is halting enough without stripping out the rudiments of grammar that have been hammered into us at school. “Hammering” information into pupils is not necessarily a bad thing.

You mightn’t think it now, but having Pythagoras’s theorem at the tip of your tongue can be very useful. I found that out when I was once stuck in a field with a tape measure, a piece of string, and a problem to solve. The rote-learners had rattled out the answer before the millennials could even reach for their smartphones.

Hands up if you still question what you are told

But it’s not just the practical lessons that stick. The lilting melody of Austin Clarke’s poem, The Blackbird of Derrycairn, would be lost to me if I hadn’t memorised it. (Look it up. Can anyone tell me why Clarke has slipped down the ranking behind Patrick Kavanagh and WB Yeats?) Rote learning is not the problem; being able to remember things is surely an advantage. The problem is that children learn not to question the answers they’re given. As time goes on, they lose the knack. Earlier this year, the Harvard Business Review bemoaned that “proper questioning” had become a lost art.

According to a survey by data analysts, our five-year-old heroes fill their dialogues with questions. An estimated 70-80% of their conversations were made up of questions, which are the stuff of business start-ups and innovation.

By contrast, just 15%-25% of adult interactions included questions. That led to bad decision-making and poor problem-solving.

To help adults relearn the forgotten art, the Review included a coloured graph and identified four different kinds of questions to steer the conversation where you want it to go.

Alternatively, you could just enlist the help of a five-year-old.

So, why do we stop asking “why”?

Think about it. Did you get more kudos in school for asking questions or for giving the right answers?

It takes guts to ask a question and even more guts to ask a seemingly stupid one. You learn that pretty fast and, after being laughed at once or twice, it’s easier to stay schtum.

That fear of ridicule stays with you later in life, until, if you’re lucky enough to go, a university lecturer might coax and cajole a few enquiries out of you during a Q&A session.

At one of those sessions, a lecturer once turned the tables and asked us students a question. There was a stony silence. We stared at him, glassy-eyed, hoping that he’d give us the answer and move on.

But he was not for budging. Minutes passed and still nobody said a word. It reminded me of that old D’Unbelieveables sketch, when Pat Shortt, playing a teacher, told his pupils that looking at their vacant expressions was like “looking into a field full of thistles”.

And still nobody spoke. The lecturer said he’d wait — his record was 12 minutes, he added.

Eventually, someone gave an answer — the right one, as it happens — and we moved on. But that constipated silence tells a depressing story about our acquired fear of speaking out of turn.

Even if you do manage to find your voice in university, the irony is you’re likely to lose it again once you get a job.

Of course, questions are allowed in the workplace, but only at the beginning and only a well-chosen few. After that, for the most part, you are expected to toe the line and get on with the work.

Let’s hope that’s one lesson our newest school-goers will never have to learn.

For now, little ones, just do as you’ve been doing all week. That’s it: lámha suas (hands up).


Lifestyle

As UK legend John Surman gets ready to play at Cork’s jazz fest, he tells Philip Watson about his well-travelled career and why he’s so angry about Brexit.Jazz legend John Surman on a well travelled career and why he's angry about Brexit

Dr Naomi Lavelle answers a weekly science question.Fish live in water all their lives but does that mean that they never get thirsty or do they even drink at all? To answer these questions we need to look at where the fish live.Appliance of Science: Do fish ever get thirsty?

More From The Irish Examiner