One of the basic social agreements we use to maintain a civil and democratic society is that each citizen has a right and responsibility to raise his or her hand and ask a question. But really, when was the last time you were at a face-to-face gathering of people, raised your hand, and asked a question – in a class, in meetings at work, during the Q&A session of a presentation, at parent-teacher night?
Free speech is not only the first amendment of our country’s Constitution, but a big part of American culture that is somewhat endangered. The pure form of the New England town meeting is nearly extinct, and many cultural and civic institutions are being replaced, usurped or virtualized in a world where we now assert our support and criticism with our dollar, our vote, or with our likes, tweets, comments, shares, and forwards.
I can’t help but worry about what this does to the opportunities, and our ability and willingness as individuals to ask questions. Do fear and analysis paralysis leave us sitting on our hands, caught up in the art of asking questions, asking ourselves questions about our questions instead of the actual question: Is it the right time? Is it the right question? Do I have the right, the credibility, or the authority to ask this question? Will my question make sense? Do I really know how to ask my question?
Has the veil of anonymity provided by the internet and social media robbed of us of the opportunity, and absolved of us the responsibility to raise our hand, stand up and clearly state “Hello, my name is John Q. Public, from Any town, and I have a question.” ?
Many of us first experience this dynamic in the classroom, where we are taught to raise our hands for everything. Raise your hand if you have a question. Raise your hand if you know the answer to the teacher’s question. Raise your hand if you need to go to the bathroom. Raise your hand to tell on the kid behind you who’s pulling your pigtails. Raise your hand to volunteer to erase the chalkboard. Raising your hand was recognized by the teacher as good behavior, and the hand-raisers with the right answers and good questions are the good students.
Good students of course, grow up to be good employees, good citizens, and good leaders who continue to behave, have the right answers and ask good questions. Right? Yes, but only if given the opportunity, reason, and responsibility to do so.
Raise your hand if you have a question. I realized in 2nd grade that this one seemed to produce an interesting effect on the teacher, and my ability to keep paying attention to the lesson - one that paralleled, if not actually trumped the pleasure of having the correct answer. Asking questions seemed to validate, complement, and actually contribute to Mrs. Warren’s teaching, and ability to move the lesson, the conversation if you will, forward in a way that was engaging and interesting for me. Win-win! I got to feed the beast of incessant chatter and questions that dominated my 7 year-old brain, and somehow stay in the good graces of an otherwise hard-to-please teacher.
However a year later the jig was up. My experiment in hustling teachers was abruptly confronted in 3rd grade when the stakes were raised, and everything changed: the Connecticut Mastery Test, the highly anticipated sex-ed talk on the horizon in 4th grade, and the new skills of writing in cursive and doing long division were separating the weak from the strong.
Despite our teachers’ insistence that “there are no stupid questions” and “there isn’t always one right answer,” there were definitive signs of new hierarchies showing up on their faces, in our report cards, and in the reactionary snickering from classroom peanut gallery reactions when you raised your hand and asked a question.
Clearly there were now smart and stupid questions, right and wrong questions, and a growing group of passive, passing students in the middle of the bell curve who didn’t raise their hands much at all, only occasionally contributing a question or an answer. I remember wondering, what keeps them from raising their hand?
There’s a Chinese Proverb that my grandfather was particularly fond of that says, “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” Was I fool to take this fortune cookie wisdom and assume that everyone was as willing as I to be a five minute fool? Or is it the fear of being labeled the smart or stupid student that keeps us from asking questions?
Fast forward to my work today working for The Connecticut Forum, facilitating a youth development program for high school students, called the YOUTH Forum. The quick and dirty version I often use to respond to people who ask me what I do is saying, “I encourage high school students listen, think, and ask questions”. Admittedly, I judge the success of a YOUTH Forum meeting in part on number of hands raised and questions asked.
As facilitators we pose questions to the students as conversation prompts, with the hope that our questions are catalysts for sharing and listening that inspires them to start asking questions of themselves and one another. Moderators for The Connecticut Forum’s topical panel discussions among celebrities and experts do the same thing – ask questions that provoke, inspire, and invite more.
iGen is consuming information and entertainment at an unprecedented rate and volume. At the same time there is increasing pressure to excel, with decreasing time spent on asking questions beyond those that generate the right answer. What kind of future are we building if asking questions is not a key piece of what we teach young people in school and by our actions as adults? Asking questions is part of being brave, part of critical thinking, part of citizenship, part of leadership.
These days, the opportunity and responsibility to raise your hand before asking a question may vary depending on your lifestyle or occupation, but if you really thought about it, how often do you ask questions? How do you feel when you have a question? Do you raise your hand and ask it in front of the group? Or do you just murmur it to the person next to you, have a private chuckle or eye roll, and keep it to yourselves?
I assert that it is not just our right but it is our responsibility to ask questions, to contribute, to move the conversation forward. From American Idol to the Republican debates, we’re getting awfully good at judging, criticizing, and making people right or wrong from the comfort of our couches, anonymity of our online avatars, and support of our water cooler commentary.
Let’s balance this equation and ask more questions of ourselves and one another. Mean it when you say, “Let me know if you have any questions” at the end of an email, or default to leaving space for Q&A at the end of a meeting agenda.
Ask questions that you think you know the answer to. Ask questions when you have no idea what the answer will be. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know, and therefore don’t even know what to ask in the first place. Ask anyway. Even loaded questions, hypothetical questions can add momentum, fuel to the fire, and move things forward.
Any questions? Please raise your hand.
Naomi Reid, YOUTH Forum Program Manager