Friday, March 21, 2014

Quizzing is For School, Not Life

Ah, quizzing. People in any type of formal education are probably familiar with the official kind, the test kind, but for the crowds of homeschoolers and unschoolers especially, we learn early on to dread the questions coming as soon someone finds out you don't go to school. "What's 8 times 8?" "What's the capital of China?"

There's an easy way to separate quizzing from plain old asking of questions, and it's this:

Questions asked in curiosity, asked because you want to know the answer for yourself, is the way a question is generally best asked. When you instead quiz someone, ask them a question you know the answer to just to see if they know it, too, it becomes something entirely different. It becomes an attempt to assert yourself as smarter, more accomplished, superior. An attempt to bump yourself up higher on the perceived knowledge hierarchy. Anyone who, as a child, has had another child ask "do YOU know what that means?" or had an adult bend down and with the greatest of condescension ask them a question that adult most certainly already know the answer to, knows just what that looks and feels like.

You'd think that it would end as an adult, though, wouldn't you? That adults would at the very least treat other adults with enough courtesy to not quiz each other unless invited to. Yet that obviously isn't the case, as I've learned. It happens sometimes still because of unschooling, such as when, a year or two ago, someone tried to ask me a math question upon finding out I hadn't gone to school. And at an unschooling conference a couple of years ago, my sister (then 18) got in a conversation with a family staying in the same hotel who weren't part of our group, where as soon as they discovered what type of conference was going on one promptly asked her a question about physics. She doesn't tend to let herself be pushed around, so responded simply "I don't think that's usually how you introduce yourself to someone you've just met." The quizzer was embarrassed, and his family apologized, commenting that "he's a teacher!" which I suppose was supposed to convey that he just couldn't help himself. Yet more frequently than that rude quizzing from complete strangers, I think it often happens among people who do know each other, by individuals who just don't think about how condescending their queries are likely to sound.

Last spring, I was happily telling a friend who's very into wild edibles and wild skills about how I'd been harvesting and eating fiddleheads, and the first thing he said was "how did you know they were the right species?" taken aback, I explained that they had the correct groove in them. "Other non-edible ferns have that too." still feeling rather off balanced, I added that they also had the correct papery bits, at which point he nodded, satisfied.

I was left feeling angry and hurt though. The lack of respect for my judgement shown with that question, to think I'd eat a wild food without feeling confident in my identification, was insulting, and that someone I considered a friend thought nothing of quizzing me was rather hurtful. I recognize it was likely coming from a place of concern, and when friends do this I'm sure there's no bad intention behind it. Yet it still ends up coming out badly!

There are appropriate times to quiz people, of course. Times when you've entered into a relationship where you expect that from someone: you've accepted someone as a teacher or mentor for a specific subject, you're attending a workshop or class, or you've asked a friend to quiz you on a particular set of knowledge you're trying to get to stick. That's the type of quizzing that's actually helpful and beneficial.

But if someone hasn't asked for it, that's it. Just don't, no matter the age of the person you're tempted to quiz. Instead, save questions for when you don't know something, and want to know more. Ask questions out of curiosity and fascination and excitement and a desire to learn more. That's what questions are meant to be all about.


  1. I like this piece. It is kind of salve for the incidents where we've been quizzed or I've watched my kiddo get quizzed (like this).

  2. Get this one: My grown neighbor was homeschooled and apparently didn't have a positive experience. He has expressed to me that he believes traditional school is a better alternative. I unschool my 13 year old daughter and she as never been traditionally schooled but luckily he has never quizzed her. BUT he insists on having his 7 year old son who attends the local public school perform for me. He will corral his son and quiz him on his multiplication tables, spelling, etc. I'm assuming all this is done to show ME how much "smarter" a child can be when they are traditionally schooled. I usually just smile and let him wallow in his ego. I have full confidence in my daughters abilities and strengths and feel no need to defend or prove anything to anyone.

  3. I have just recently discovered your blog and I really like your writing. I have already send some of your blog posts on to a friend. I really appreciate your perspective on this issue too. I am a mum, engaged in helping out my kids with their unschooled learning and I have certainly noticed myself quizzing my kids from time to time. Your post helps me to be more aware around this. I agree with you that it is probably not helpful and is usually disrespectful of them. However, there are times that I am genuinely curious to find out what my children know. I also need to document their learning for the educational authorities here in Australia. I mostly do this by observation but sometimes I will toss a question at them. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  4. Luksky people already try and do this with my son and he's only four. Its sad.

  5. This reminded me of a Thanksgiving dinner when my kids were 10 and 14. Their grandparents were over and grandpa asked a question. Since I thought we were all having a discussion and he was looking for an answer, I answered the question. He looked at me and said, "I know, I was just asking to see if they knew." I then became, forever, the bad mom who speaks for her kids in addition to the negligent mom who doesn't "teach" her kids. Ugh.