Asking too many questions is not cool

March 21, 2012 at 06:40 PM · I just discovered

Replies (39)

March 21, 2012 at 07:04 PM · Sorry, this is the incomplete post and it won't let me edit. The complete post was accidentally deleted in the process, but this is basically what I try to say:

I just discovered a Chinese violinist net ( and it has a lot of interesting discussions. One of them is the suggestion that students should not ask too many questions. This is an interesting idea that I think most teachers or parents in China will object these days. But I think there’s something to be said about it. Asking questions can make a student appear attentive, curious and diligent, but I’d say it could also be laziness in disguise. If questions are answerable by the student himself with some careful independent thinking and investigating, then each time the teacher answers this type of question is a good learning opportunity lost for the student. Hence, I would argue that the statement “there are no dumb questions” should be applied with some care. If an answer to the question can be found by the student with some reflection, then this question should be redirected if not discouraged.

March 21, 2012 at 07:55 PM · In general, I beleive that there are no dumb questions and we shouldn't be discouraged from asking or made to feel we can't ask...or to be discouraged from asking. We can learn a lot from asking/talking and I'm fine with paying to talk about something during a lesson if it answers a question I can't find an answer to otherwise.

However, if a student asks questions, pays no attention to an appropriate answer...and keeps asking the same question...well, that gets into the 'dumb' category.

If that student asks the same question...but doesn't get a satisfactory answer...and keeps asking...then that's valid!

Sometimes it's hard to tell where the issue is though...with the student or with the teacher.

March 21, 2012 at 08:00 PM · I'm a teacher too - one on one (but not music) still I do have an opinion. I find it a much larger challenge to get students to ask questions than stopping them from asking too many. Thus, I would never tell them to back off - every question can be made into some sort of learning experience. Indeed, my biggest concern of all is that they ask questions when they don't know something so that it can be fixed (you don't want to be chatting with a student the day before their thesis exam to discover a big hole in their knowledge that negates their work!).

I suppose there could be students who use questions to hide their laziness behind - but it does not ring true since once the question is asked they have to be ready for me to probe what they do and don't know.

So in my group we definitely have the 'there are no dumb questions' policy - and I try to live by it to never make fun of someone that askes an honest question, however, absurd it might sound.

March 21, 2012 at 08:02 PM · I would argue that learning how to ask the RIGHT questions is partly a matter of trial and error, and you can't be good at asking the right questions until you get comfortable with the process of formulating them in the first place. Like practice, it requires some repetition.

Of course, education systems throughout the world have very different perspectives on encouraging students to ask questions, ranging from support to suppression.

March 21, 2012 at 09:10 PM · “I suppose there could be students who use questions to hide their laziness behind - but it does not ring true since once the question is asked they have to be ready for me to probe what they do and don't know.”

Elise, this means you are in a way redirecting the students to think for themselves if they have to prove to you something they do know. This will make your students think twice the next time before asking you a question again. I don’t think we need to tell students directly some questions are dumb, but I do believe that it can be a waste of your time and more importantly theirs if they get into a habit of asking before thinking.

I have to say I find myself guilty of my own accusation. My philosophy and legal trainings made me a capable question generator. I’m good at asking tough questions, some were clever but a lot of I ashamed to admit were just dumb. The dumb ones are the ones that the answers I could have found out by quick research, by careful listening of what other were saying. Sometimes by just waiting for a few moments, the answers should be clear or the issues became moot. Also in a class, I think everyone appreciates the questions someone ask will help to clarify something for all, but did you ever run into students who would ask questions non-stop just because they can, to show off, get attention or bored? I don’t think they've built this habit overnight.

March 21, 2012 at 09:59 PM · I think Yixi has a point. I, too, am an "asker" and have a teacher now who is challenging me not to stop asking, but to see if i can find the answers myself. With my students, though, the tendency is more like the first couple responders: getting them to think and find/ask the questions in the first place. But once asked, i do often turn it right back at them to find the answer from what they know or i've already taught.

March 21, 2012 at 11:45 PM · The intelligence and care of the student can be measured by his questions. So it is not about the quantity but the quality of the questions. Many questions can and should be answered by books. Some questions will stay there. I don't know why not asking them the teacher.

In fact there are qeople asking questions just to show their interest in something and wanting to sound smart, thats redundant and just a waste of time. But it is a question of character not of something thought out wether to ask or not.

Some ask a lot of good questions, some just open their mouth and lose sounds...

I have some pupils who ask me out of lazyness things they could answer by themself. My answer is always: "thats what I am asking you?"

If you use your own head you can also seperate between good and not so good questions. And I really think one can judge someones interest and passion for something listening to his questions.

March 21, 2012 at 11:53 PM · There are no stupid questions, only questions that are easier to answer.

March 22, 2012 at 02:06 AM · My DQ list includes the following questions:

• questions need no answer from others,

• questions are unproductive (e.g. "Am I good enough?"),

• questions are irrelevant to the occasion (e.g., asking the violin teacher during the lesson "Why are you still single?")

• lazy questions

• "I'm smarter than you" type of questions

• any question put to the teacher as a form of game. (I know one teenage student did this to a violin teacher of mine just to avoid playing.)

March 22, 2012 at 06:09 AM · > "Am I good enough?"

This is not an unproductive question. Perhaps there are teachers that don't like to answer this, and there are equal or greater numbers of students that don't really want to hear the truth when it's delivered to them. However, it's quite relevant at all levels.

What if a student comes in at age 17 playing at a technical level equal to that of the difficulty of the Accolay concerto and asks if they can make it into Juilliard for college-level studies in violin performance?

What if a dedicated ten-year-old student who has never played chamber music before asks about applying to camp, and doesn't have the experience to know whether their technical and musical proficiency is at a level appropriate to participate?

The challenge for us as teachers is that we may not personally have the experience or understanding of the student to answer affirmatively "yes" or "no." That was certainly the case for me when I started teaching two decades ago.

March 22, 2012 at 06:33 AM · In my opinion it is also good for the teacher to ask the student a lot of questions in the lesson like for instance, 'Why do you think you missed that F#?' or 'What do you have to do with your bow and left hand to play espressivo in this phrase?' It gets the student thinking. The learning process is a two way street.

March 22, 2012 at 09:47 AM · Yixi, I'm inclined to agree with you, and I like some of the suggestions that others have made about redirecting the questions back to the asker to encourage them to think or to figure it out themselves.

I have fallen into the trap before, especially as a parent, of thinking I need to have the answer for every question my kids ask. And it took me a while to realize that doing that, in addition to being a good way to make myself crazy, is doing the kids a disservice too because it encourages them to be too reliant on me.

I think that is one place the lazy student habit comes from: if teachers or parents create the expectation that they will always have the answer.

March 22, 2012 at 09:54 AM · Gene, I think you're both right, in a way. I still agree with Yixi that "am I good enough," phrased that way, is unproductive because it's too much of a value judgement. It just gets used to beat yourself up. And besides, it begs the real question, good enough for what?

But when the question is made more specific as you did--about particular programs with particular standards--then you are encouraging the student to think more deeply and critically, rather than just using the question to torture yourself or the student.

March 22, 2012 at 10:27 AM · [did this topic go through binary fission?]

March 22, 2012 at 11:59 AM · Yep, there can be too many questions.

My college prof enjoyed,was very knowledgeable and spoke well on many facets of music history. Students in the studio would sometimes prompt him into telling stories (which was pretty easy to do), when they felt they hadn't prepared all so well.

I have found that adult beginners and returnees in a way sometimes have "too many questions", too. It is quite easy for them to get ahead of themselves in terms of wanting to understand intellectually, things about playing, when their lesson and practice time might have been more productive if they would just play and take down suggestions for the next "baby step."

March 22, 2012 at 04:15 PM · Well, there are questions and there are questions.

I thought we were discussing questions regarding music and the instrument.

"Are you single?" is on a different plane

Adult beginners/returners are also different animal - they can gnerally handle both advanced questions (to see where the road is heading) while taking those baby steps to get there...

Unless the questions actually delay or hinder progess in playing, I'd suggest they're likely not dumb.

We also interact with each other by asking and answering questions. "How are you?", "Enjoying the lovely weather?" etc. The best way to engage someone in conversation is to ask them a question - about themselves. I imagine this fundamental human trait just spills over , perhaps more than it should, into more focused activities.

Should we overthink every question to see if it's 'dumb' or not? Also, not everyone wants to look up the answer to everything themselves. Sometimes it's laziness...other times it's just a different focus of interest.

March 22, 2012 at 04:40 PM · Your original post, Yixi, sounds like the person was advocating just doing what your teacher tells you without questioning it. Most today would find that a somewhat old-fashioned approach. It goes with not challenging authority.

I agree with Nate that asking a student lots of questions can be very productive. I volunteer with middle school string players and will often ask them which of the notes they just played in a passage was the most consistently in tune or out of tune, for example. This gets them to listen to themselves AND each other more carefully. They almost always answer correctly, by the way.

For the most part I love it when they ask me questions, as long as it's not a ruse to waste time. After a discussion about high and low second finger on the D string, the kid who looked puzzled and asked where E# was is what makes it all worthwhile. As for the kid who asked out of the blue if I had ever smoked pot . . .

March 22, 2012 at 05:32 PM · Lisa, the Chinese author's original point may appear old fashioned but in fact not. The focus is in the best interests of the student. If asking too many questions ends up defeating the good habit of careful/critical thinking, then this is laziness in disguise and should be noted or discouraged by teacher/parent. I'm afraid I didn't translate his point very clearly the first place.

Karen, I was thinking about your discussion of introversion/extroversion when I was posting this topic. I think it's fair to say that "askers" tend to be extroverts and in a way, the teacher was trying to install a bit introversion to cultivate some kind of balance in these students.

Sue's comment of adult students are easy to get ahead of themselves is just bang on!

March 23, 2012 at 12:27 AM · “ "Am I good enough?" This is not an unproductive question. Perhaps there are teachers that don't like to answer this, and there are equal or greater numbers of students that don't really want to hear the truth when it's delivered to them. However, it's quite relevant at all levels. “

Karen has given an excellent answer already and here is my attempt. Like Karen said, the problem with "Am I good enough?" is that it is a judgment made on two vague concepts, "good" and "enough". How good is good and enough for what? Without specific and measurable terms, I find this type of vague questions tend to cause unhealthy self-doubts, unrealistic evaluation and unnecessary frustration.

It is much more productive to turn it into these type of questions: “Have I meet the goals x, y, z to my satisfaction?” “Am I progressing in the areas of x, y, z as we have planned or hoped for?” “If certain parts of the piece do not sound right after certain amount of work, why are they not working and how can I fix them?” etc.

March 23, 2012 at 05:53 AM · I like Nate Robinson's answer: the teacher should also ask the student a lot of questions, to get them thinking.

My new favorite question (it has to be asked gently, with a tone of motherly/fatherly concern so the student doesn't see it coming):

"Do you have a concussion?"

It's a lot nicer than "Are you retarded?" ...Well, not a LOT nicer... :-p

March 23, 2012 at 06:08 AM · Bruce, maybe you were just trying to be funny but I don't get it. How would your question be helpful to the student? What would you do if you were at the recieving end of such question? Call the ambulance?

March 23, 2012 at 02:40 PM · "I was thinking about your discussion of introversion/extroversion when I was posting this topic. I think it's fair to say that "askers" tend to be extroverts and in a way, the teacher was trying to install a bit introversion to cultivate some kind of balance in these students."

Yixi, yes, I thought about that too and I think this is a very good point. Some people just seem to be better learners and thinkers when they verbalize things aloud, and others are not.

In my case, I do well when I write. Writing helps me think and process. So I do ask questions online or in writing, or sometimes I write them down in a journal. But I am not very good at learning from verbal give-and-take in real time and I am not very good at processing auditory inputs quickly. It just goes by too fast and I don't have enough time to process the answers or to think about the questions. I get overwhelmed by a lot of talking. This is also why it's good for me to record my violin lessons and listen to them later.

But I realize everyone isn't like me, either. Many other people seem to process auditory information better than I do. So I think it may be a problem (when it is a problem) of a learning style mismatch more than anything else.

March 23, 2012 at 07:52 PM · “In some disciplines, identifying the "right" questions is key to success, but it takes years of training to figure out what is considered a good question in the field.”

Precisely! Learn to ask the right questions should be part of the learning in almost any disciple.

Frieda, many good points and I pretty much agree with all of them, especially the point that, as Karen has also very well articulated above, different people have different ways of learning. For me, I need to think out loud to process my thoughts and this often makes me an annoying asker (a weakness can be overcome). I used to come home from school each day and told my family with all the excitement that “I talked a lot”, which they knew instantly I had a wonderful day. But we need balance and I think the commonly accepted rule of “there are not dumb questions” is over-simplistic. In the ever increasing ‘noisy’ world of ours, it is not too late to remind ourselves and our kids the value of less is more and silence is gold. It's an awareness rather than censorship. Don't you agree?

March 23, 2012 at 08:09 PM · “Yixi , is it a good thing to answer a question with another question? Is it useful , or just fun?”

It depends on the question and who is asking. I’d say sometimes it’s very smart to either keep silence or answer a question by asking “Can I call a lawyer?”, “Who are you?”, “Why do you ask?” “Can you show me your Police authority?” You get the point.

I also particularly fond of questions such as “What do YOU think?”, “What is your suggestion?”, or “How would you do it if you were in my shoes?”, etc.

March 23, 2012 at 11:36 PM · One of my sayings.

A senseless person asks a question and doesn't care for the answer.

A intelligent person asks a question and finds the answer.

A schooled person is given the answer before he thinks of the question.

A genius finds the answer before he thinks of the question.

I don't have a saying for a person who asks a lot of questions

March 23, 2012 at 11:55 PM · Charles, I would argue that a good/diligent student finds the answer before he thinks of the question, but only a genius finds a question no one can answer. Think about it, almost everyone has some kind of answers (rightly or wrongly) to most questions people ask, especially the big questions that no amount of investigation will lead to a satisfying answer. It takes a true genius to come up with a question that no one can have any intelligible answer whatsoever.

March 24, 2012 at 12:58 AM · I don't care for the fact that the "read all previous responses" link was hijacked to take me to some Chinese website. That's a dirty trick. No harm done, though, because the link doesn't work.

March 24, 2012 at 02:45 AM · Paul, I don't appreciate your comment about dirty trick. So far we are having healthy bona fide discussion until you showed up. Please don't soil this site and go somewhere else if uncivilized conversation is more to your taste. If you are serious about the topic, for your benefit I'm copying the same link again here ( But if it doesn't work on your computer, I don’t know how I can help.

March 24, 2012 at 04:14 AM · Yixi, i agree that was a rude response, but the link did come out weird for me too, as in replacing your opening paragraph and the previous responses. Unfortunately, no clue how to fix....

Interesting discussion. Food for thought.

March 24, 2012 at 04:34 AM · Thanks Kathryn! As I stated in my first comment that it is a Chinese violinist net so I assume everyone will know posts there will be in Chinese. I also know that there are readers of do read other languages including Chinese. It is for these readers I put the link here.

For those of you don't read Chinese, the site may look a bit strange. I’m afraid this is not the first time and certainly won't be the last time of my posting, as I'll be blogging about the upcoming Menuhin International Violinist Competition from Beijing next month. While my blogs will be in English,I may also have to sneak in something Chinese from time to time. But don’t worry, the Chinese stuff is getting easier the more you see it. I promise!

March 24, 2012 at 05:56 PM · My point is that I would have no way of knowing whether you are having a "bona fide discussion" or not because I cannot SEE the posts that appeared prior to my last login, because when I click where it says "previous responses" I am taken off the site to something that says "BAD URL" and when I look at the underlying code I see that an attempt was made to link to a web site that I am not familiar with, and from which I greatly fear I may contract a computer virus. If directing users to another site using the "previous responses" link was not intentional on your part, then I apologize for calling it a dirty trick. But *something* is very wrong and needs fixed.

March 24, 2012 at 06:39 PM · ". . . maybe through conditioning it's just much easier to teach a student if they would hold back and just do as they're told, trusting the teacher to do his or her job."

Frieda, this type of teacher is one that drives me nuts. I learn best when I have an idea of where I'm going. Yes, I'll go through the recommended steps to get there, but I want to know WHY. I've had teachers- music and other subjects- who find this annoying or insubordinate, but others who who really appreciate that type of question.

March 25, 2012 at 03:13 AM · Nathan Milstein: "You cannot explain everything"

March 25, 2012 at 03:31 AM · 'I learn best when I have an idea of where I'm going. Yes, I'll go through the recommended steps to get there, but I want to know WHY.'

I think you hit on the most important point, Lisa. It's not enough to just give an order, I think it is important for a teacher to explain the reasoning behind each and every concept. Otherwise, a teacher in the long run produces students with a hallow understanding.

March 25, 2012 at 04:00 AM · But, to play devil's advocate-does the teacher always need to do the explaining? I find that often the most effective learning is when they find the answer themselves! Of course it's necessary to make sure they have the foundations and tools etc. Etc. And to teach an exploratory mind. But the answers dont always have to come from the teacher!

March 25, 2012 at 05:30 AM · I think the kind of teachers I like the most are those who don't always tell me what to do but rather question and make suggestions. They observe, see the issues, then ask me why something doesn't work and what options I've got to fix it, then either affirm or modify my solutions.

Note that there is a difference in learning of purely intellectual nature and learning of know-how. In the former cases (such as academic studies), it’s almost impossible for students to do well without a lot of questioning and thinking. But in the latter situation (playing instruments, sports, yoga, etc), too much questioning is overthinking, which can interfere with physical learning. Apparently we are using different parts of the brain for analytic thinking and physical learning, and one can get in the way of the other. (see Gladwell’s discussion on “choking”.)

March 25, 2012 at 04:21 PM · Lisa's post about wanting to know why, is spot on. It's been my experience that humans retain a certain elevated level of competency for a new task when they experience success through a mentoring process and guided discovery of the "mechanism", rather than repetitious rote floggings. It's true that once the student grasps the concept and mechanism, repetition can bring out other positive qualities. But knowing why something is done a particular way first or..., is key to being able to competently understanding the concept. Everything else should flow somewhat easily from that understanding. This relates to all sorts of tasks, not just musical ones.

Teachers teach, educators bring something else to the table. They have that blend of instructing with no ego, of leading the student to the door then letting the student open it and go through on their own. All the while providing good solid information that the student can always trust. Just an observation.

March 25, 2012 at 06:52 PM · The problem I have with students (science teaching) is invariably that they dont ask enough questions - so I'm reluctant to discourage the questioning, I just encourage relevance. I also think its important to reassure a student that its OK to be wrong or even silly (as long as it was not intentional of course) because sometimes the best ideas come from the oddest thoughts....

March 25, 2012 at 07:15 PM · Precisely my point I mentioned above, Elise. Intellectual pursuit needs unlimited questioning to work in the frontal lobe as hard as possible, but this is different in discipline of know-how (play music, sports, dancing, yoga, etc.), which requires a certain amount of trust and faith from the students to just do what is told, at least in the beginning stage, and don't get ahead of oneself. Afterwards, you need the trust in yourself to avoid overthinking lead to ‘choking’. But you probably know about this a lot more than many of us do.

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