The problems of
1.) students being afraid/unable to ask questions
2.) teachers misunderstanding questions and offering unrelated answers
(答非所問, as the Chinese say)
are serious enough in native language classrooms. How much more serious are these problems in a foreign language classroom? Most importantly, what can be done about them?
Travelers in foreign countries may have encountered the situation where they make the mistake of asking for directions in a yes or no format. “Is the museum this way?” Upon hearing “yes”, they proceed, only to discover that the museum is not that way at all. After experiencing such a situation too many times, one may realize that it is better to ask, “where is the museum?” even if one already has some presumption. If the informant answers “yes” to “where is the museum?”, the traveler safely concludes that the informant has not understood and proceeds to ask someone else. From the other perspective, informants who wish to be helpful don’t just answer “yes”; they answer “yes, the museum is that way” so that they can endow the traveler with complete confidence.
When a teacher loses a student’s confidence the educational endeavor is essentially lost. What use is a question if one can’t believe the answer? (there are uses, but not ones the teacher should strive towards!)
While failing to offer any concrete advice, I can only say, I wish that teachers would strive to ensure that they fully understood students’ questions before answering them.
Regarding the first issue, it is often up to the teacher to ask students questions to determine their comprehension and their ability to delineate it. The question, “Does anyone have any questions?” is often useless. Targeted questions may intimidate students but only insofar as they reveal their weaknesses. Shouldn’t that be sufficient indication that one needs to slow down and back up, until students have sufficient basis, and confidence, to ask their own questions?