There is no such thing as a stupid question

St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, 1990–1991

One of the most important lessons I ever learned was while I was in my fourth and final year at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews and it had nothing to do with what I was studying, practical theology and Christian ethics.

The lesson I learned was, there is no such thing as a stupid question if you don’t know the answer.

I was in an ethics seminar with Mr Michael Keeling; there were maybe six or seven of us, students, sitting around a table in his office discussing some complex ethical matter. We’d been given preparatory reading and—remarkably—we’d all done read it but it was difficult and we all got stuck on one particular aspect.

Mike leapt up at one point and went over to the blackboard on his office wall and started to explain the theory. His chalk tapped and scraped on the board as he explained and drew diagrams to illustrate his point.

I was watching him intently, taking it in, trying to map it against my own mental model of how I thought the theory worked. I kept glancing around at my fellow students—eyes open, nodding in agreement. They seemed to be understanding this much more easily than I did. I felt like such a fraud sitting with such intelligent peers.

Mike stopped talking and turned to face us.

“Did that make sense?”

Everybody nodded. There was silence.

The ideas were still swirling around my head but something still didn’t quite fit into place. It felt like a jigsaw puzzle with a few key pieces missing. I still couldn’t see the whole picture.

“Is what you are saying…?” I began.

Everybody turned to look at me. I felt awkward and stupid for wanting to confirm what he had so clearly explained to everyone else.

“Is what you are saying…” and then I went on to tell him what I had understood from his mini lecture.

Mike stood and listened to me. He smiled and said, simply, “No.”

He then cleared the board and began again.

“Okay… I’m glad you said that. No, that’s not what I meant. I have not explained it clearly enough.”

And so he went back to the beginning, to the first principles and built his explanation from there, stopping every now and then to make sure we were following.

I looked around at the class and one by one what had appeared to be a satisfied look of comprehension on their faces, dropped as they each began to realise that they had been holding onto an incomplete or flawed model of what Mike had been teaching us.

“Does that make sense?” Mike asked me.

I gave him my revised understanding.

“YES!” my lecturer exclaimed.

“That is not what I understood the first time round,” said one of the students, “but that makes… that makes sense now.”

That seminar was one of the key moments in my personal and learning development. I learned so many things that day: it is okay to ask questions. There is no such thing as a stupid question if you don’t know the answer. Teachers love to explain things, that is why they are teachers—so ask them. If you are teaching someone and have already explained something but someone doesn’t understand then the fault is not with them, it could be your explanation so try again. You feel vulnerable in those situations but the risk you take builds character and courage to ask again in the future.

There was a grace that I experienced in that seminar that day. We were within a safe space to explore and question and ask for clarity. I feel thankful to Mike Keeling for teaching me that… even if I can’t remember what he was actually trying to teach us.

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Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 48 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert, I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, write, draw and laugh… a lot. Scrum master at Vision Ltd, Dundee. Latterly, web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and former warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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