Asking Questions

January 01, 2006 | Applesauce
By Steve Stark

Johnny stared up at his new 2nd grade teacher and asked, “Mrs. Phillips, why do you do what you do?” Such a simple question, but yet so profound. In the case of this little boy his question went to the heart of what motivated his teacher to face each day with a group of 7 year olds. Although unknown to him, this little boy was enacting a teaching methodology that most educators and philosophers will recognize as the Socratic Method, whereby the art of asking questions seeks to elicit particular truths from those responding. In the case of Socrates’ his questions were so probing, so powerful that they eventually led to his being placed on trial as being subversive to Athenian society. Questions are powerful instruments that have served as the motivator of change throughout history. Unfortunately, they are not used with quite the same level of enthusiasm and impact in our modern classrooms. They are invaluable tools that far too often are lacking as part of our classroom pedagogy in adequate breadth and depth.

Historians, philosophers, scientists and theologians can testify that questions have been used to redirect the course of people and nations. They have been the core of philosophical thought; they have brought about miraculous changes in medicine, science, and engineering. They have exposed and turned the tide of events throughout history beginning in the Garden of Eden when God asked Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” not because he did not know, but in order to reveal their sinful deed and the ultimate consequences that would impact the future of mankind. Questions challenge our souls toward direction, discernment and wisdom. They allow even the smallest child to seek and grasp the foundations of faith necessary to have a relationship with an omniscient and omnipotent God. In order to conquer ignorance we have to ask questions, without questions there are no answers. Questions elicit truths and bring a deeper comprehension to the mind and heart.

Jesus understood the art and power of the question. We are only provided with a small glimpse of Jesus’ life in the Gospels, but within this glimpse we find over one-hundred fifty questions asked by Jesus. Jesus is the author, the creator of the question. When we observe Jesus’ encounters with his disciples, those that followed him from town to town, and his protagonists, we see that questions were a critical and important part of his means of helping them to discover who he really was and where they were in regards to their relationship to him. As Jedd Medefind states in The Revolutionary Communicator (2004), “He understood that when an idea is imposed, however reasonable it might be, it is rarely held for long.” This is why it is so important in Christian schools that, as a part of our instructional techniques, we not only ensure that the four ‘R’s include this methodology, but our exposure of truth through Biblical integration--the development of a Biblical worldview—challenge our students perceptions and views with this methodology as well. Jesus, again, is where we turn to see this so masterfully played out with questions that went straight to the heart of the real issue, “Who do you say that I am? Why do you call me good?” In order to respond to these questions the hearer was brought to a place of introspection and forced to examine his true beliefs, some of which he may have never been challenged to face in such a poignant way up until this point. The same is true of us and our students today, regardless of our religious or cultural backgrounds. Questions properly addressed send all of us straight to the core of our belief system for self examination revealing our true orientation in regards to our relationship with God and his precepts.

While questions seek to explore and bring to light everything from simple facts to eternal truths and realities, action is also a necessary component of discovery brought to us through questions. Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth President of the United States said, “We should not only master questions, but also act upon them, and act definitely.” Action is what we do in response; it is the seeking out of whether there are more underlying questions that need to be asked. In order to bring about change, whether it is in our ability to perform some academic function or to grasp and implement revealed truth, we must take action. When we ask a question we must also be ready to guide the student toward the proper resources necessary to bring about an appropriate response.

Asking the right questions at the right time in the right way is a powerful motivator to bring people to their feet, to enact and force change when needed. Many pivotal turning points in history were brought about by such a simple yet powerful force—the question. One example is the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s in the U.S., which is replete with the question asked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the black community, “If all men are created equal, why should some be treated as more equal than others?” The response to this question led to the Civil Rights Movement in America. Medefind states, “Revolutionaries–those initiators of transformation in human lives—are men and women who understand the power of a question.” It is not just revolutionaries that should grasp this power and realize its potential for prompting meaningful change, but those of us in the classroom as we seek to stimulate our students’ understanding of the subjects we teach and the God we serve.

Asking brings about understanding. Besides “mommy” and “daddy,” the first and most often used word we hear toddlers enunciating is “why?” Even at this early age I believe there is something God has placed in our cognitive template that drives us toward the quest for knowledge, and we early on discover that one simple word, a question, opens the door to a vault of information. The Latin word quarrier is where we find the basis for our word question, quarrier means to seek, which is the same root as the word for quest. Thus, the asking of questions is our quest for understanding, our search for knowledge, our desire to comprehend why things are the way they are. It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question. For several millennium man had watched the apple fall to the ground, but it was not until Newton stopped to ask why that the quest for an answer led to our understanding of what we call gravity. What apples in your lives have you watched fall without seeking to ask why? Have you sought to not only help students gain knowledge by the asking of questions, but have you also imparted to them the importance of their ability to ask not only questions, but the right questions? Humorist James Thurber once said, “It’s better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” How many times have you been able to recite an answer from rote memory, but did not have the slightest clue to why the answer was correct? It’s probably because you really did not understand the question, you just knew the expected answer was x, y, z. Too often we focus on hearing the right answer, without caring to ensure that we have paid attention to the question. As educators our goal is as much about seeking to help students develop the right questions as it is searching for the right answers.

In most of our lives and all too often in our classrooms it is not the power of the question that is used to guide students to knowledge, understanding and discernment; it is our declarations, our proclamations, our personal manifestos, our lectures. While not necessarily viewing ourselves in this manner, too many of us as educators conduct ourselves only as the distributors of information and disseminators of facts. While these have a rightful part in the development of students’ knowledge, they should not always be the driving force of pedagogical technique. The utilization of the “question” in the classroom seems to take a backseat most of the time to other pedagogical methods. I believe a primary reason for this is that asking good questions takes planning, which takes time, which is something that most teachers testify they believe to be in short supply compared to the necessary curriculum to be covered. When we as teachers articulate those objectives we wish to have our students grasp, we too often feel compelled to always keep our hand firmly on the steering wheel directing a very well defined, straight and narrow course. This is done in hopes that our lectures, readings, & worksheets will get our students to the finish line with the least amount of resistance and under the time prescribed by the clock and the calendar.

The calendar and the clock are the realities of limitations in our classrooms, but so are the self imposed constraints we place on ourselves by use of the least efficient methodologies regarding learning. As an educator you have to ask yourself if you are utilizing all or the most effective means of pedagogy in your classroom. When you discover this answer for yourself you then have to ask, “What do I need to do to bring about change in my own teaching style to effect serious positive change?”

Effective questions have a specific purpose in mind that intends to draw out some specified objective or truth. As such not all questions are created equal. As educators we learned this in our first methods class whereby we were introduced to Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is meant to provide us with a classification of questions so that we can more precisely guide our students to respond with a different type of thought process depending on the objectives or truths we desire our students to comprehend. If you have studied the multiple layers of this taxonomy you realize that it takes time to think through which may be the appropriate level of questions for the specific objectives. Typically the higher on the classification scale the more time we as teachers must think about the specific questions that will guide students toward thought processes that require higher levels of critical thinking. This portion of our lesson planning takes more time, but also leaves us as teachers in a position of vulnerability, which we never like to admit bothers us. This is a place where we sometimes have to take our hands off the wheel for a period and allow the students to drive the exchange of thoughts and ideas. Medefind puts forward the thought that, “Statements alone can be rigid, easily picked apart, and then disregarded in a debate or details….They often give little space for the listener’s own thought process, but instead try to orchestrate that process for them.” As teachers we need to allow and even drive some of the responsibility of asking questions toward our students.

An ancient Chinese proverb states, “One who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; one who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” We not only should ask the questions that move our students toward acquiring knowledge, we must inspire and move our students toward the ability not to simply provide a rote set of responses, but be able to grapple with and develop their own set of questions. More often than not we tend to dictate and control this part of the investigation of truth, or the goals and objectives for our students. We need not be afraid of allowing the current to flow between the students as opposed to always channeling it directly between teacher and student. Our role at this time is to function more as the referee or umpire allowing the team to chase the ball wherever it is kicked, but within the boundaries we discern as necessary to guide toward self discovery, stated objectives and goals.

Whether you are new to the classroom or a veteran of many years, the development of good habits in the use of asking questions, especially asking the right questions, like anything else will take some practice and time if it is not currently a strong point in your repertoire of methodologies. It also may feel uncomfortable and even intimidating releasing control to your students, but the value of what your students will learn and how you will grow as a teacher is well worth it. You will need to remember also that the development of this aspect of your students’ educational growth will call on you to be a little more prepared because you don’t know when the Johnny in your classroom may walk up and say, “Why do you do what you do?”

-Steve Stark

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