If someone were to do a background check on me, I wouldn’t qualify to be a teacher. I was a bad student. At 13, I had no idea why I was studying German and was making no effort to learn. I used multiple-choice tests to make artistic patterns and randomly passed. One day, something piqued my interest and I dared to ask a question. “So, um, where does the verb go?” This is what our German teacher had been trying to teach us for the entire year and my question proved that I hadn’t been listening at all. He simply lost it at that point, enraged at the futility of his teaching.
I watched him lose it dispassionately. All I thought was, “Geez, all I did was ask a question.” For my teacher, my question was the last straw. For me, my stupid question was a feeble sign that I was ready to learn something. That tiny flame was snuffed out instantly and marked my last question. The biggest irony is that so many education systems claim to teach students while discouraging them from asking questions. This manufactured consent is a product of our cultural norms.
Questioning is not encouraged in Japan, neither to one’s father nor to one’s teacher and I found this even at the corporate level among businesspeople learning English. Critical thinking is not something to just pay lip service to, but is something needed to survive at the negotiating table. In an attempt to foster critical questioning, I conducted a simple debate, but as questions soon became insults, I realized that there was no fine line between “debate” and “argue”. The reaction to insult was fueled by TV shows that marketed fiery exchanges as entertainment. At that time, it was considered provocatively daring and “Western.”
Though it is simplistic to say that questions are not encouraged in a certain culture. It is less of a gross generalization to say that students don’t know how to ask questions in many schools. A researcher might try to correlate inquiry in education systems to economic competitiveness. They might find that 2013 results refute the fleeting theory of “Asian Values” in the late 90s in which economic success was suspected to be the result of paternalistic systems.
A more current answer could be found in someone who is bilingual and bi-cultural from an overseas education. I met someone who had spent nine years overseas from age 16. The biggest cultural shock was learning how to live and think independently. He had grown up asking permission before doing anything. In Australia, he found that questions aren’t only for asking permission. Questions keep us informed so that we can make the right choice, do the right thing and shoulder the consequences.
Used to asking questions, he then faced reverse culture shock on his return, but contrary to common expectations, he didn’t come home as some kind of alien renegade. In fact, his ability to balance a respect for authority while taking initiative enabled him to become a skillful general manager.
When students begin asking more questions in school, they are one more step closer to some day becoming general managers. Presently, successful businesses are often run by imported talent, despite the glut of graduating local students. In the end, a good education will determine who works for whom and it’s not a bad thing to be the boss. A good boss, that is. One that can accept questions.