Monday, March 26, 2012

"Dumb" questions and STEM bullies

I hasten to point out that the folks in these pictures are most definitely NOT bullies!

They are the Stanford professors who have been teaching some wonderful on-line classes that I have been taking this year.  In the fall, I took Introduction to Artificial Intelligence with Professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun.  (They were amazing.  Among other things, Prof. Thrun headed the Stanford team that designed and built the driverless car that won the DARPA desert challenge.  He has an inspiring Ted Talk that I highly recommend.)  Now I am taking Probabilistic Graphical Models with Professor Daphne Koller.  (Her photo above is from wikipedia.  This NYT article tells a bit more about the cool work she does.)

There are tens of thousands of students all over the world taking these classes along with me, and students helping one another on the course discussion boards has been an essential and exciting part of the learning process.

There is absolutely no way that Professors Thrun, Norvig, and Koller or the few official teaching assistants who help them could answer all our questions.  There are so many unanticipated sources of confusion and technical difficulties (for example, some students live in countries where they use commas instead of periods to denote decimal points, people are using many different operating systems on their computers, for many students English is a second language, etc.)   I am once again struck by the spirit of generosity among my classmates.   While observing the rules of the Stanford Honor Code (which prohibit giving help on the substantive content of graded homework assignments), my classmates have generously provided assistance in dealing with various technical issues that have arisen with downloading and installing and running the required software.  This has been very helpful to many of us.

However, very occasionally there is an obnoxious comment posted on the discussion boards making a snide remark such as "Anyone who asks such a dumb question clearly does not belong in this class."

I cringe when I read remarks like these.  I think of the people who make such posts as STEM bullies.

My feeling is that the askers of the questions DO belong in the course.  The ones who do NOT belong are those who put others down for asking "dumb questions".

I feel the same way about our math circle as I do about the on-line classes I am taking.

Thus, I was heartened to read this powerful post on the subject of "dumb questions" by Professor Thrun--it captures my own beliefs so well that I wanted to share it--I will be reading this aloud at this Friday's math circle:

I really hope that this new digital medium makes it easier to ask "stupid" questions. Let me report on myself. I work with a 200+ people team at Google (reporting into me), I co-founded Udacity, I am an authority in my area of research. I ask many many "stupid" questions. I have learned that asking questions is power. The problem is if others respond to such questions with "you should have known." People rarely do this to me, but they do this to my students. I really dislike this, and I usually confront them. We should remember that there is NO learning without asking questions. In this class, there are people with many different levels of knowledge and skills. What brings us together at this point is that we are all 100% dedicated to make this class. be kind. Reach out to people asking questions whose answer appears trivial to you. Be a friend. And make a friend. remember the question that seems obvious to you once was non-obvious to you. You find that people respect you for being kind. Being kind is one of the highest levels of achievement. I will respect you for it, and so will the people around you. There will come the day when you are asking the stupid question - and you will appreciate the kindness of others.

No comments: