What to Do when you Can’t Answer a Student’s Question? An Essay about Being Productively Stupid

What to Do when you Can’t Answer a Student’s Question? An Essay about Being Productively Stupid


Human beings are not perfect, nor does every individual possess knowledge of all domains. The same is the case for teachers. Nearly every teacher has experienced it at some time or other: You receive a tricky or unexpected question from a student which you cannot instantly answer. This then leads to the yawning emptiness and the fear of not being taken seriously by the pupil as the ideal of a teacher as an ocean of knowledge might fall. But, not everything is ‘as bad’ as it looks like. Feeling stupidity is part of any teaching and research. To clarify this proposition, we must begin with a little background. 

In a little-known essay in the “Journal of Cell Sciences”, Martin Schwartz wrote on “The Importance of Stupidity.” His crucial insight from graduate studies was ‘that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite.’ Doing science made him feel stupid. With every discovery and quest for new opportunities that feeling is a constant companion. That realizing, the only way to escape the dilemma is to ‘muddle through as best we can.’

As Schwartz noted, it’s the mindset that makes the difference. Firstly, we should raise as much questions and do as much experiments until we get eventually a provisional answer. This is a constant quest for knowledge acquisition. Curiosity is the essence of life. Secondly, we can teach our students to be ‘productively stupid.’ It is not the feeling of actually being stupid, but the attitude to be ignorant by choice, to focus on the questions of paramount importance, and to be trying it hard again and again, even if we get it wrong in the end. With trial and error, we learn always something new every time and with each step. Thirdly, students must be aware of the weaknesses and their not-knowing ‘partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficient high level that they are ready to take on a research project.’ It should be inculcated in their minds that they should acquire maximum knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that they should feel inferior if they are less aware of some particular thing. In other words, being ‘productively stupid’ helps both students and teachers to increase deep learning and, in the end, it helps digging a way into the unknown.

So, what can you do when you can’t answer a student’s question:

  1. Do not fear of ‘looking stupid’, but be honest: Students won’t think that you are not qualified enough if you can’t answer a question. Just say that you don’t have an answer yet. You can answer the question in the next class after some research.   
  2. Teachers need to demonstrate that they are exalted learners – Be productively stupid: If you are asked about a field in which you are not an expert, a normal response would be: ‘Well, this is a good question, but I don‘t know the answer.’ Show your students that you are interested to find an answer together with them. Use your rhetorical skills and redirect the question to the other students and make a learning exercise out of it. 
  3. Try to model stupidity: Search the web or other resources, find a relevant article, etc. Refer to methods of further investigation, e.g., selecting keywords, quoting resources, or use other previously successful strategies. Hopefully, this exercise leads to an answer. But even more interesting is that new and other questions may arise. Show to your students how research works. One question leads to another and more well-informed question. Modelling stupidity helps to acquire new knowledge. 
  4. Visualize the problem: Another important thing is to put the question on the whiteboard and collect all the information necessary so as to comprehend the meaning.

We can all hear that voice in our ears when we receive a question which we can’t answer immediately. But don’t listen to that voice and trust yourself. Try to think of the importance of stupidity for any research and teaching and muddle through as best you can: A teacher’s biggest fear can be their best companion. Stupidity shouldn’t be considered the weakness of the mind. Stupidity can be considered a dying phoenix that can be reborn from its ashes. It can be made productive by different strategies and by making it even more productive.

If you find this post interesting, please leave your comment below.

Schwartz, M. A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science, 121(11), 1771. Retrieved from http://jcs.biologists.org/content/121/11/1771.abstract [02/03/2018].

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Dr. Maik Arnold is Professor for Non-Profit-Management and Vice-President for Research, Innovation and Transfer at University of Applied Science Dresden.