Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Teaching with Questions

Posted by robf on March 26, 2008

When I was in the MTC almost 20 years ago (ouch!), our large group meeting trainer was a guy named Elder Slaughter who had served his mission in Mexico. Rumor was that he had baptized thousands of people like some latter day Ammon or something.

One evening, we went to visit him (he was also a resident assistant living there at the MTC) and he sat me and my companion down and showed us the missionary discussion booklet. He said, see this here, one column of words and another column of scriptures and suggested questions? They should be reversed, he said. You should really teach by using questions.

He then proceeded to teach us the first principle of the first discussion, the “we believe in God” principle of the 1980s era discussions. He started by asking me “why do you believe in God?” I don’t remember how I answered it, but I remember that afterwards he thanked me for my answer and told me that he could tell from my answer that I did believe in God, and that I loved God. He went on like that for a little longer, asking questions that led us to tell him our testimonies. It was the most powerful experience I had in the MTC, and really colored how I taught on the mission and afterwards.

Shoot forward now to the recent January Ensign article on teaching with questions.

I like how the four types of questions are listed here, for which we can easily use the acronym SAAT (sorta like the college entrance exam?)
Search: questions that make class members dig into the scriptures to find an answer.
Analyze: questions that make class members think about what the scriptures really mean
Apply: questions that lead class members to think about how the scripture might apply to them
Testimony: questions that lead the class member to bear their testimony

We’ve talked about some of this before here, so maybe nothing new. But I found this SAAT rubric a nice way to teach teachers in my ward about questions.

Personally, my favorite questions for teaching content are what does (fill in term here) mean? and why? These are Search and Analyze questions that I use to try and drill down more deeply into the scriptures with my classes, never settling for that first, second, or maybe even third “easy” answer, and pushing until we can’t seem to go any farther. A teacher armed with the ability to ask probing questions like this, is on the right track.

As for the Apply questions, I think pushing class members here is a good idea as well. What does it really mean to apply something “in our daily lives” anyway? And is it really about isolating “gospel principles” from the lesson for us to “apply” or should we be asking questions about how we can consider ourselves to be in a similar situation as Adam, Eve, or anyone else in the scripture accounts we have. How are we like Nephi? Or Captain Moroni? Or Amalekiah?

The final type of questions, those testimony elicting questions, may be the most important of all. They may also be the ones we spend the least amount of time on. We’ve all heard, and probably found ourselves asking the “anyone have an experience with (insert term here) that they’d like to share?” questions. But are there better ways to ask that? Like Elder Slaughter asked me? Perhaps something like “How do you know (insert term here)?”

How else can we ask these questions?

9 Responses to “Teaching with Questions”

  1. bfwebster said

    One thing that I try to avoid as a teacher is to ask questions that appear to require a single ‘right’ answer. That will paralyze a class faster than anything else, since no one wants to give a wrong answer. However, some times you need or want to ask questions like that. What you can do is preface them with “So, what do you think…” or “What are some of the things that…” or similar clauses that make it clear to the class members that they are safe in giving their opinion and that there could be multiple answers.

    As far as your last question (how else can we ask testimony-eliciting questions), I’ve found that asking “So, what’s been your experience with X?” tends to get more responses than “Does anyone have an experience with X that they’d like to share?” I think the former approach allows people to approach the subject a bit more obliquely and without diving into personal experiences right off the bat; they can cite the experiences of friends and acquaintances, or even faith-promoting rumors :-), but they usually end up giving personal experiences anyway. ..bruce..

  2. robf said

    Good thoughts, Bruce.

    I agree that there are problems with questions that appear (and I am going to italicize that) to have a single right answer. But on the other hand, there are a lot of church members who simply don’t know a lot about what the scriptures are really saying, so I think part of teaching can be to show them what they don’t know, as long as we are prepared to show them how to find answers to what they don’t know. If I ask a question that elicits a blank stare, I then ask where we can find the answer to that question. Hopefully, I have an idea of where to go, but I’m perfectly happy to make the class dig something out of the Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, or a passage of scripture. Often, we all learn in the process.

    For some questions, students may not immediate have access the answer, which is where the teacher can come in well prepared to teach–eg. helping students with the original Greek or Hebrew meanings of words, etc.

    In the back of the teacher’s mind I think there should always be the question of how can I get the class to feel the Spirit and bring them to Christ. Sometimes a good discussion of Church History or Nephite Kingship can get us there. Other times a discussion of specific words that we throw around all the time but may not fully appreciate. There are a million paths to Christ through our lessons.

    To me, its somewhat like the old Lorne Greene game, where the object is to create a narrative from any starting point that ultimately arrives at Lorne Greene. For instance, if someone gave me the word “apple,” I might say something like “apples are interesting fruit, and isn’t it funny that we call that bulge in our throat an Adam’s Apple? I can’t think of the name Adam without thinking of Adam Cartwright on Bonanza, the oldest son of Ben Cartwright, played by Lorne Greene.”

    Its a silly game, but I think in all seriousness, we should be able to take any starting point in a gospel lesson, and be able to get to Christ very quickly, and to use the lesson to help us strengthen our relationship with God.

  3. RuthS said

    I like to use metaphors with an eye to how the things being compared are alike and how they are different. I also like to set up a situation and then ask what would you do. I really want questions that provoke thought. I like to get people out of the SMA (standard Mormon answer) mindset. A question I like is, We are to God as a. Mickey Mouse is to Walt Disney, b. George Washington is to our Country c. Shakespeare is to King Lear or d. Donald Sutherland is to Kiefer? What difference does it make? Here is another, What do credit cards, makeup and advertisements have in common? These of course are for specific topics but the idea of comparisons with things in our experience is what I am illustrating here.

    I find that we tend to a standard way of looking at things especially in groups and so a lot of reflexive answers are bandied about. Sometimes I have to suggest to them that they look at things without the Mormon filter. Some wonderful discussions follow when they look at the scriptures as though they had no preconceived ideas.

    One technique I really like is called a round robin. Everyone has a paper (4×6 card) and a pencil. A question is posed and then the group is given a few minutes to write down everything they can think of that will answer the question. “You know you have faith when_____________?” or some other question. When they have taken time to write down a few things each person is given the opportunity to give one of the things they have written down. That goes into a list on the board. Every person can contribute one thing or pass. There is no discussion until all the various responses have been given. This encourages people to share things without fear of their idea being rejected out of hand. Then one at a time the responses are read and discussed. The class arrives at application and testimony through the discussion process. And, yes, I do this with adults.

    I like the Lorne Greene game suggestion. That has a lot of great possibilities.

  4. robf said

    Yeah, I think we’ve all bumped up against that “Mormon filter” at times. Nothing like the raw unfiltered Mormonism to really grab the attention, though!

  5. bfwebster said

    A question I like is, We are to God as a. Mickey Mouse is to Walt Disney, b. George Washington is to our Country c. Shakespeare is to King Lear or d. Donald Sutherland is to Kiefer?

    OK, Ruth, that’s the funniest thing I’ve read all day. It’s also a wonderful question, and I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me in a million years to ask something like that.

    I spent the last two years teaching Gospel Doctrine (OT, NT). My approach (as per robf above) was to do my best to given the class some context and understanding — both for the original documents themselves and what it all really means in a gospel context. I relied heavily upon Robert Alter for both translations and commentary through the first half of the Old Testament. I also used Avraham Gileadi’s introduction in his translation of Isaiah to prepare a one sheet summary of how to read Isaiah.

    I actually do read NT Greek (well, maybe it’s best to say that I can mostly pronounce and usually can look up NT Greek words, and that I’ve got a lot of NT Greek texts) and used an Interlinear Greek NT through the entire time teaching the NT; I tried for every lesson to find at least one passage where going back to the original Greek (or a better translation than the KJV) gave an insight. ..bruce..

  6. joespencer said

    Very interesting post, Rob. I wish I had more time while on the road to engage this discussion. I’ll just have to hope it is still going on when I get home next Tuesday. :)

  7. robf said

    One of the best lessons I ever learned at BYU, from my Honors Colloquium, was that there is no such thing as a bad class or lesson–just unprepared students. One thing I like about focusing on questions is that anyone in the Church can show up on Sunday prepared for their Sunday School or MP/RS lesson with some well thought out questions for the class. Ideally, every student in the class should be able to teach any given lesson, just by showing up with a handful of great questions.

  8. joespencer said

    Marvelous discussion here. I want to talk at some length about all of this, but I want to do it in light of the post I’m about to put up, so perhaps I’ll just suggest everyone takes a look at the “Mere teaching” post.

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