We recently had a teacher training workshop in our ward. There was a good turn out with lots of very positive contributions and an overall great discussion. For my own part I talked about the use of questions as a teacher. I’m sharing what I prepared since it may be useful for some of you, but even moreso because I’m interested in your feedback. Do you take issue with any of my points about the use of questions? Are there other reasons or ways we ought to use questions in a Sunday (or in our case, Friday) School setting?
As we all know, one of our primary responsibilities as teachers is to create an atmosphere where members of the class can commune with the spirit and receive revelation. One of the most important ways I’ve seen this done is by doing what God and angels are continually doing in the scriptures: asking questions.[fn1] Here are some tips about asking questions from my experience as a teacher.
1. Interrogate people. Literally. But in a kind way.
1A. Follow up questions are really, really important, particularly if we want to get beyond worn out Sunday School answers, or help people see anew the profundity of the worn out Sunday School answers. Example:
You: What should we do when, like happened to Nephi, even those we look to for answers don’t seem to have the answers?
You: Why should you pray?
Student: Because God knows what you should do.
You: Ok, but I’ll just be honest, there are times when I wasn’t sure what to do, and I prayed, and I still didn’t know what to do. Was praying still the right thing?
The problem with the worn out Sunday School answers is that they’re robotic and are often offered without any attempt to account for the complexities of real life. Asking questions can help force people to either give different, more thoughtful answers, or think all over again about their robotic answers.
1B. Helping people clarify their comments is crucial – not only does it help them think carefully through their first answer and share additional insight, but helps everyone else to do the same.
1C. Interrogation can also be a safe or non-confrontational means of downplaying questionable answers. Sometimes the follow up questions can be posed to everyone. You don’t have to say, “Huh, I think that’s wrong.” Instead, you can just give opportunity for different viewpoints to be shared. Follow up questions can also make the person who gave the questionable answer rethink a bit. Further questions can be an excellent way of guiding the discussion away from whatever you felt was questionable. Remember, when people give questionable answers, the goal is not to call them out and denounce them, but to help them and everyone else think through the issues more carefully.
2. Don’t ask obvious/Sunday School questions: they make people freeze; they’re awkward; no one wants to answer them; and they waste time.
2A. If you feel it’s important, than ask and answer it quickly yourself, or else break the ice by saying something like, “Ok, obvious question but important to get straight before we go on: what was Nephi’s reaction here?”
Obvious questions are best when they are set-up for deeper level follow up questions.
2B. Another option is to ask it in a new way: “Ok, so one obvious point here is that we need to be willing to follow the prophet. But we all know that blind obedience isn’t the answer. So how is it that we can be immediately willing like Nephi without voiding our agency to someone else?”
3. Give people time to think about and answer the question. Teachers feel very uncomfortable when someone doesn’t answer right away – 3 seconds feels like 30 seconds. But this is the time that the question works on people. Don’t be afraid of silence! This is especially true when you’ve just asked a tough question (which is something else you should do!).
Sometimes people really do need a chance to think about the question for a minute before answering. Hence, one good method is to ask the question beforehand. For example:
3A. Priming them with the question before reading a scripture is an excellent way to get people both to pay attention to what comes next and also think seriously about the question. “As we read this passage I want you to think about how it is that our homes relate to the temple.”
3B. Similarly, you can ask important questions that really get to the heart of your lesson upfront. “I want to hear about experiences that you’ve had where paying tithing brought about blessings or spiritual growth. That’s really what this lesson is all about. So think about that while we go through the lesson, and at the end I would like for some of you to share your experiences.”
3C. You answer first. “Most of us believe in reading the scriptures, but that doesn’t mean we get it done. What is it that makes reading the scriptures difficult to do on a daily basis? I’ll go first, but then I want to hear your experiences.”
4. Ask questions without having a specific answer in mind. It’s human nature to fish for answers, and sometimes this is appropriate. But tough questions that don’t have an immediate answer can also be powerful. Sometimes these will be questions that have occurred to you that you really don’t have an answer for. For example I recently asked our Gospel Doctrine class why God gave Lehi a Liahona in I Ne 16:10, when in the proceeding verse he just spoke directly to Lehi sans magical object. The Liahona seems totally superfluous. Why did God give it to them? This was a question that jumped out at me during my own study. I still don’t have a satisfactory answer, but we had a terrific discussion that focused not only on Lehi’s family but on our own lives, personal revelation and the need for various kinds of concrete “Liahonas.”
5. Ask questions that will help the class to see things in a new light. Some of our most powerful learning moments are when we see things differently than we have before.
6. Ask really specific questions that acknowledge the variety of experiences and backgrounds in the room: “How can we be a good father when – like some of us in this room – we have to be away from our families for months or even years at a time?” or “I want to hear from one of our single sisters about what motherhood means;” or “I know there are people in this room who read this verse about Nephite government, and draw political conclusions totally opposite to those that I do. Does this mean that one of us is right and the other wrong? What does this say about the scriptures and our political life?” or “Testimony is not an all-or-nothing sort of thing. Rather, as Alma tells us here, it is something that grows and develops. How can we spiritually contribute to others even when we have doubts?”
fn1: For those interested, I found Dennis Rasmussen’s book on the way that God’s questions to humans are transformative a worthwhile read.