Why we should be asking more ‘stupid’ questions.
The ‘smart’ teacher
I recently read a vivid illustration of the “stupid question” that needed to be asked. The shy student who dared to raise her hand.
The teacher, a cognitive scientist, studies the psychology of understanding. I don’t know about you, but just that job title would make me shrink from asking a question that might be seen as stupid!
So this super smart teacher was talking about building a chart that shows data distribution. He was using a simple word – “bin.” As in, “when the data are continuous you must first place them into bins.”
What is a ‘bin’?
Most of us have bins at home. I have one for dirty laundry, which I call a laundry basket. Another for food, which I call a refrigerator! Regardless the size, a bin is a place to collect things.
While Mr. Scientist was talking, a hand went up in the front row. The collegian was obviously embarrassed, beginning with the typical disclaimer, “This is such a stupid question.” She went on to express her question. “But I am really confused. What do you mean by a ‘bin’?”
The ‘stupid’ teacher
The teacher asked the class, “How many of you are glad she asked that question?” To his chagrin, about half the hands in the classroom went up. And he felt his own stupidity.
He asked himself the question, “How could I assume that the class knew what I knew?” The problem of the teacher being completely unaware of what the student does not know, is so common that it has a name: “the curse of knowledge.” This ‘curse’ is a real detriment to communication because it assumes common knowledge that does not exist. An assumption that is unacknowledged by both the teacher and the student.
The ‘curse’ of knowledge
What exactly is the curse of knowledge? One way of describing it is that those who possess knowledge find it impossible to imagine what it is like to lack that knowledge. The more you know a particular concept, the less able you are to imagine what it feels like not to know.
In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student illustrated the curse of knowledge with a simple game. The game has two players: the tapper and the listener. The tapper’s job was to tap the rhythm to a well known song – for example, Happy Birthday. The listener’s job was to guess the song.
Listeners guessed only 3 of 120 songs correctly. Tappers were asked to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. Actual: 3 of 120. Prediction: 60 of 120. The tappers knew the melody and found it hard to imagine that others would not be able to guess correctly. But the listeners, not having that knowledge, could not distinguish by the rhythm tapped what the melody was.
The ‘stupid’ question
We find it hard to imagine that what we know will not also be known by others. This assumption makes it difficult to share a concept with others because we cannot readily recreate their state of mind. So knowledge has ‘cursed’ us by making us unaware, and with the lack of awareness, ineffective. The curse of knowledge strikes at the assumption of commonality.
Which leads to the stupid question. The listener (student) really must ask their question because the communicator (teacher) cannot know the mind of each listener. But the listener has the ‘curse’ of stupidity. Imagined stupidity comes with a sense of shame. Shyness forbids that we ask. Embarrassment hinders the raised hand. The assumption, “I alone don’t know,” creates a false sense of ‘stupidity’ that does not exist in reality.
Asking the ‘stupid’ question
If you have ears, you should listen. If you don’t understand, you should ask. If you have listened well, you will be able to ask the question that focuses on the specific area of misunderstanding. This will enable the teacher to respond with clarity. “What do you mean by a ‘bin’?” is not the same as asking, “I have a laundry bin at home. Is there a difference?”
When the question is asked with focus, your lack of understanding will be resolved. Others having the same or similar lack of understanding, will be grateful. The teacher will be grateful that you removed his assumption of common knowledge and asked with thoughtful focus. Learning will be expedited.
Of course, not every teacher will appreciate either the exposed assumption or the interruption. And not every student will be able to ask with focus, wandering in meaningless circles.
What do you think? Will it work? Next time you communicate, will you welcome the question that exposes the ‘curse’ of knowledge in your presentation? Next time you are confused at what you are hearing, will you give it a try? Will you ask?
Some practical applications of the play between the one knowing and the one learning where an effort can be made to anticipate the emptiness of the curse of knowledge and facilitate the stupid question:
- Marketing effectively – do not assume what your audience needs to know; you want to market to the people you actually need to reach, not to yourself. Targeting is effective.
- Training memorably – discipline yourself as trainer to make a difference between the big picture concept and the multitude of details. The big picture is memorable.
- Selling powerfully – realize that by speaking from the buyer’s perspective you will be able to make your selling points stick. The buyer is made powerful.
- Communicating interestingly – realize that by speaking from the hearer’s perspective you will be able to make your ideas stick. Making sense is interesting.
- Speaking potently – unnecessary words are those that descend into the depths of detail and fail to simply emphasize the main concept. Brevity is powerful.
- Teaching excellently – admitting a lack of knowledge of the interest of the student, the excellent teacher shows where to look without telling what to see. Guiding reflects excellence.
- Writing accessibly – the challenge is three-fold: break the idea down into simple parts; engage without overwhelming; develop points of accessibility. Good writing is remembered.