Cover image via LDS Media Library.
I would love to be one of those amazing teachers who truly changes lives. I’ve seen them in action and I’ve marveled at their talent. Though I fall far short of the mark many times, I’ve studied these experts and can tell you a secret they all know.
It’s about asking questions. But not just any question. We’ve all struggled when a teacher is looking for one specific word, and we’re all trying to guess what that word is. “So why is Jesus a good example?” and there are a hundred answers, but the teacher is looking for only one. Over and over people guess and are pronounced wrong—which leaves them feeling embarrassed– until someone luckily hits upon the singular right answer.
Nope, the better way to do this is to ask the right questions. Claude Levi-Strauss once said, “The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.” When you ask the right questions, you make people think. They come up with their own ideas, they make discoveries, and they come away enlightened.
This isn’t as tricky as it sounds. Yes, you impart information when you teach. But, more importantly, you get your students to apply these lessons in their lives, connect the information with feelings, and draw conclusions of their own.
Our daughter, Nicole, is a natural at listening and asking questions. When someone comes to her with a problem, she actively listens and then lovingly asks questions that help the person reach a solution. I’ve joked that we are exact opposites in this, because when someone comes to me with a problem, they can scarcely finish their sentence before I jump in with, “Here’s what you should do.” And perhaps it’s a generational thing that occurs when you have a lifetime of experience, and want to save your friend time and frustration.
But that comes off as lecturing, and soon induces boredom and distraction in the other party. If you teach a class at church and no one ever raises their hand, you have fallen into the talking-head trap where you may indeed have meaty info to impart, but you have failed at getting your students actively involved in learning.
Hundreds of years before Christ was born, Socrates was using a teaching technique that became known as the Socratic method. He would ask one question after another until a logical fallacy was revealed. Obviously this could make church class members feel beaten down and defeated today. But to ask questions that make us think, or identify emotions, or apply a lesson in daily living—this variation on the Socratic method can help students feel that spark of discovery we all want, that “wow” moment when we realize we had never thought of things this way before.
One way to tell if your questions are the right kind is to imagine them on a test. If there’s a short right or wrong answer you have a test question, not a critical thinking question. Instead of asking, “Why did Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem?” (to pay taxes) ask what they might have been feeling as they prepared for the arrival of the Messiah himself. Why they went is a test question with a specific answer; what it must have felt like is a thought-provoking discussion question. Can you tell students about the taxation law and also the wickedness of the place, the unwillingness of the townspeople to help this young couple? Of course. But if you can get them to experience the scene, the lesson will build faith.
You could ask, “Why do we need prophets today?” which could actually yield some good answers, but how much better it would be if you ask if anyone has ever met a prophet or apostle, and what that felt like. Or, if no one has had this experience, ask them what they might say if they were to get such an opportunity. This involves everyone in a vicarious moment of pure imagination. Testimonies can be born without even soliciting them.
A good teacher doesn’t allow the students to get off into the weeds contributing ideas that are not doctrine, but to bring correct teachings into their hearts. It takes preparation to know the material and to set the stage for the Holy Ghost to bear witness of truth. But, within this framework, there should be plenty of room for the right questions which will lead to a rich discussion and the sharing of ideas.
In the Teaching in the Savior’s Way manual on lds.org, many scriptural examples are given, which show us that Christ himself used questions to get his listeners to think deeply, and make personal discoveries.
Remember when he asked his disciples who people said he was? Then he asked, “But whom say ye that I am?” forcing them to really think for themselves, and declare their faith in him. This lesson wouldn’t have been anywhere near as powerful if he had simply told them the answer. (Matt. 16: 13-17)
Many of Jesus’ questions boil down to What do you want? Where is your heart? What do you truly believe? Why are you afraid? What do you understand so far? What are your priorities? These kinds of questions make us engage in honest introspection, and to really analyze the depth of our commitment to our Savior.
When Ammon begins to teach King Lamoni, he asks if the king believes in God, then in the Great Spirit (What do you understand so far?). He doesn’t sit down and say, “Okay, let me tell you what’s what.” He forces the king to think, not just to listen. And then, of course, he creates the ideal teaching moment when the king is craving information and begins to ask questions of Ammon. (Alma 18:24-28)
As a college extension course teacher and high school substitute teacher, I often found myself cutting out the questions so I could cover more material. One eye on the clock, I wanted to cram all the information I could squeeze into the allotted time. And this is tempting at church, too, even more now that we have a shortened schedule. But we have to catch ourselves, take a breath, and take a better path. Instead of trying to get everything covered, let’s get every student covered—with the Spirit. Let’s allow for those wonderful “Aha” moments that can only come when a person is engaged and thinking on their own. A wonderful side benefit is that students share insights which teach the teacher.
Let’s not limit this incredible technique to formal classrooms. Asking the right questions is a wonderful way to parent better, to develop stronger dealings with coworkers, and to improve and deepen all our relationships. What do you think?
Hilton’s LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.