5 WAYS we tell kids they are STUPID!

Not something we want to do is it?  Telling someone they are stupid is not going to do much for their self esteem, nor will it get them excited about learning. In my experiences as an educator for 30+ years I have had many opportunities to observe and reflect on  teaching and learning practices.  I have come to realize that teachers sometimes  communicate mixed messages or even negative messages unintentionally. Messages that say to students, “you are not capable” or essentially, “you are stupid”, can creep into a teaching practice.  This article will hopefully create an awareness of the subtle things teachers say and do that can compromise a child’s desire to learn.


1. Teacher says,  ” I told you that already”.  When students ask a question in class they take a risk in revealing their level of understanding. But student questions play an important role in learning and need to be encouraged.  This sentiment is reflected in the research on questioning that is heavily influenced by sociocultural theories and the notion that students learn through their interactions with others (Vygotsky, 1978, as cited in Berk, 2004). The teacher can send messages that make it safe for students to ask questions, or messages that say “you’re stupid”, “you weren’t listening”.   Teachers need to turn inward and reflect on why a student hasn’t been listening.  Why do you think the student didn’t hear the teacher the first time?  Could it be that the student was still trying to figure out another issue?  Could it be the student was distracted by having to copy down notes?  Could it be the student was so bored that it was just too difficult to stay engaged?  Teachers really need to examine why students aren’t always ‘paying attention’ or grasping onto every syllable that comes out of the teacher’s mouth.  


Bored in Physics Class?    Photo courtesy of Henry Tan

Bored in Physics Class? Photo courtesy of Henry Tan

This is important feedback for a teacher–an indication that an adjustment in the teaching practice is required to engage students in the learning. Questions posed by students are very important learning sites and should not be squelched!  It is important that we welcome student questions and in fact teach them to ask questions instead of just answering them (Bowker, 2010). As the teacher plays Socrates, students become more and more dependent on the teacher, and less involved in directing their own learning.

I encourage teachers to think about the following: How many times have you said, “I already answered that” in the past few weeks? Do you think you make it ‘safe’ for students to ask questions in your class?  How do you know?  Are there students in your class who rarely or never ask questions? Why do you think this is so?  What will you do differently?

I have added a link to Bowker’s article here; it addresses the importance of creating a classroom environment that welcomes questions.  http://www.nea.org/assets/img/PubThoughtAndAction/Bowkershort.pdf

You may also be interested in a recent article  by Maryellen Weimer, Unraveling the Messages Our Behaviors Sent to Students available at http://www.facultyfocus.com

2. Teacher says,  “Don’t Think!”. I am being a bit facetious here.  A teacher  wouldn’t REALLY tell students not to think but I have seen teachers actively discourage the thinking process.  When that happens, the subliminal message could be that students aren’t capable of thinking.  At the very least, it does not give them opportunities to develop thinking skills.  For example, typical classroom questioning is comprised of knowledge or ‘remembering’ type questions.  These are questions such as:     What year did Malaysia gain independence?     How do you factor a quadratic?    Describe the mitosis process.    Such questions discourage students from doing any thinking at all and tell them they need only memorize or reiterate something they have read or have had demonstrated.  These are simple recall questions.  A regular diet of these kinds of questions sends a message to the students that they aren’t capable of delving further.  Or that they don’t have to ‘think’.  They need to be encouraged to form opinions and to substantiate their opinions.  They need to discuss, hear the opinions of their classmates, and even argue.  They need to be challenged to think.  I am not saying that we should abandon ALL knowledge/recall type questions, but I am saying that we need to provide a healthy diet of questions that require real thinking to take place.  Bloom’s Taxonomy is often referenced as a guide to design questions that reflect various levels of thinking.  A quick google will give you lots of resources.  You may be interested in an article by T. Rick Whiteley (2006) who comments on using the Socratic method and Bloom’s Taxonomy and a constructivist approach to teaching thinking.  Check out the article at  http://sbaweb.wayne.edu/~absel/bkl/.%5Cvol33%5C33ai.pdf

Open-ended questioning techniques also elicit higher order thinking.  Teachers can model open-ended thinking for their students by revealing their own metacognitive processes. A math teacher might share thinking while modeling how to solve a problem:  “Now I could try to divide throughout by x but I don’t think that will work because x could be zero after all.  What else might I divide by?”  Nel Noddings (2008) writes about modeling open-ended thinking as well as questioning techniques.  You can check out his article here:


These approaches will help teachers who wish to adopt a “THINK” mantra for use in their classrooms, and show that we value thinking.

I encourage teachers to reflect on the kinds of questions posed in the last few weeks of classes.  What kinds of questions did you ask?  What kinds of questions did students ask? What percentage of your questions are ‘open-ended’?  What will you do differently?

3. Teacher says, “Hands up if you know the answer”.  This one may catch you by surprise.  Teachers everywhere rely on this traditional approach to asking questions.  Typically, the teacher asks a question, a few hands shoot up, usually the same few hands as with the last question posed.  And what are the other 20 or so students doing in the class?  Not only are their hands not up, but their heads are down.  They hope they won’t be called upon because they don’t know the answer.  They don’t want to be noticed. They are hoping the teacher will call on the people who obviously know the answer.  There are some students who rarely have their hand up.  They must not be very smart.  A few others occasionally put up a hand if they are sure their answer is correct; but they can’t be very smart either.  Some teachers employ different strategies to call on  students at random and avoid hearing from the same students.  This approach certainly helps give voice to all students in the classroom but it doesn’t  eliminate the fear factor of being called upon.  Teachers might consider adopting a “No Hands” approach, and rely on cooperative learning techniques that promote almost 100% participation rather than responses from a select few.  Techniques such as Inside/Outside Circle, Speed Dating, Think Pair Share, are effective in soliciting participation from everyone. Check out the cooperative learning structures offered by Dr Spencer Kagan at http://www.kaganonline.com.

You may also be interested in an article from Faculty Focus, To Call On or Not to Call on: That Continues to be the Question, by Maryellen Weimer available at http://www.bgsu.edu/downloads/provost/file116040.pdf

As for the traditional ‘Hands Up’ approach to asking questions, you will want to check out the work of Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black from King’s College London School of Education. They are renowned for their work on formative assessment, and are the authors of a landmark article and meta-analysis, Inside the Black Box (2001).  These authors lay claim to the notion that the traditional approach to the asking of questions to check for understanding is “often un-productive”.

You can view this article at http://weaeducation.typepad.co.uk/files/blackbox-1.pdf

Classrooms should be a safe place to answer questions and to ask questions. What can you do in your classroom to make it a ‘safer’ place?

4. Teacher says, “Guess what’s in my head”.  Sometimes when teachers pose questions to students they try to tease out the ‘correct’ answer, or the answer inside their head. There are a few issues with this approach.  First of all, we can’t always assume that there is only one solution to a problem, or one right answer.   As we play this ‘guessing game’ we are again robbing students of an opportunity to think for themselves.  We may even be relaying the message that “your thinking isn’t good…you will want to copy my thinking”.   We need to allow students to develop confidence in their ability to think and that means they need to be given many opportunities to think.  Guessing isn’t thinking.  Teachers often loosely apply Socratic approaches without a real sense of achieving what Socrates intended.  The Black & Wiliam (1998) article referenced earlier emphasizes this point.  You might also be interested in an article by Debra Myhill and Frances Dunkin (2005) who imply that the questioning strategies teachers use are more about supporting teaching than supporting learning, and addresses ways to change that.  The article is available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09500780508668694#.UlTMteRBPSg

5. Teacher says, “Great answer”.  We need to be careful about how we dole out praise in the classroom.  Of course we want to help our students feel good about themselves and be motivated to learn, but the recent research on typical use of praise indicates that it actually has some negative effects. While you are telling one student,  “Great answer”, the message to the rest of the students is that they were not able to come up with such an answer. Additionally,  well-intentioned praise might even inhibit a natural desire to learn as students come to rely on external praise instead of being motivated from within.  Jane Bluestein (2004) suggests  some guidelines for offering praise in the classroom.  The guidelines include:

  • Use positive reinforcement to strengthen already existing behaviours
  • Watch for a tendency to praise.  These statements can appear manipulative to students
  • Avoid praising one child to motivate others.
  • Avoid using teacher approval as a means to reinforce desired behavior.  Use behaviors such as a wink, smile, touch, to indicate that you are pleased.
  • phrase reinforcements as affirmations or acknowledgments
  • describe desirable behaviors in specific terms.
  • You may want to read the article by Anne Tapp and Debra Lively available at www.aabri.com/manuscripts/08128.pdf

I hope you will carefully consider these and any other ways that teachers inadvertently tell students they are “stupid”, so that we can find ways to let students know that they CAN learn.

Happy teaching!

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