Steve Fenton

There are no wrong answers only wrong questions

I finished Bruner’s Toward a Theory of Instruction some time ago now – but it keeps on popping back into my head. This is fast becoming one of the most valuable books I have ever read. I would go as far as saying that I have a different perspective on things now because of that old paperback I found, complete with dog-ears and pencil-underlines from some previous owner.

Today it helped me to answer one of the age-old problems on forums (and question and answer websites).

I picked up a question that could probably have been formatted better. It was a big paragraph of text with multiple question-marks against various sentences. This is sometimes a warning sign that the question is very focussed, but most of the time it is just a personal style.

So I wrote an answer that I thought covered all the points and supplied examples and notes to back up each point. It took ages.

The person asking the original question didn’t feel that I had answered the question, but not only that they decided to get snarky about it

“It’s amazing how you verbosely managed to repeat all the same stuff I already said in my question without adding any value, let along answering it. Downvoted.”

A year or two ago I would have been upset by this. I would probably have responded in kind and the flame wars would have started. The thing is, I no longer take this stuff personally. I probably did misunderstand the question entirely and haven’t helped at all. I understand that this probably frustrated the person asking the question.

As Bruner points out though, people very rarely give the wrong answer, it is much more likely that they have given the right answer to the wrong question.

When someone gives you an answer that you think may be wrong, it is your responsibility to improve your question, or give adequate clarification about what you expect the answer to be. What was left out of the question that might make it better – or what was included that distracts from the point or causes assumptions to be made.

So my response was a little different than it would have been. Rather than being defensive, snarky or rude – I simply apologised and guided them to improve the question.

“I’m sorry about that. Could you highlight to me the part of your question I haven’t answered?”

Written by Steve Fenton on