Sunday School Questions

February 4, 2012 | 16 comments
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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?

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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?

Student: Pray

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?

Student: Yes.

You: Why?

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?”

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fn1: For those interested, I found Dennis Rasmussen’s book on the way that God’s questions to humans are transformative a worthwhile read.

16 Responses to Sunday School Questions

  1. Ben S on February 4, 2012 at 7:55 am
  2. Julie M. Smith on February 4, 2012 at 10:33 am

    I would be hesitant to try 1A because I’d worry that other people in the class would become hesitant to comment for fear of the follow-up interrogation. Perhaps if the interrogation were directed at the entire class instead of one person?

    “Don’t ask obvious/Sunday School questions: they make people freeze; they’re awkward; no one wants to answer them; and they waste time.”

    Amen and amen.

  3. Dave on February 4, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    While I don’t interrogate people, I do organize Sunday School lessons around questions. Good questions = good lesson. Everything else just sets up the questions or fills in between them.

  4. Julie on February 4, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Questions are crucial. In my education classes, we have discussed how all education should be less about learning the right answers than about learning to ask the right questions. After all, the means by which all disciplines advance is by seeking answers to new questions.

    As a people who believe God “will yet reveal many great and important things,” it seems fundamental to learn to ask good questions.

  5. Keith on February 4, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    I’ve found it helpful to ask, after reading a (well contextualized and well chosen) passage of scripture: “What do you see here?” “What stands out to you?” “What do you notice?” and, of course, “Questions you have about what’s here?” These have the (positive) tendency to keep us focused on the scripture and what’s actually said there, and they draw on the wisdom and insight of class members–and the teacher can have his or her say also.

  6. James Olsen on February 4, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    Ben S: Great tip.

    JMS: Nah, it’s 1A on my list for a good reason. Really works. “Interrogate” is a provocative word – which is why I used it. But like I said, you’ve got to be nice. But I’ve never had it backfire. While I can certainly imagine scenarios where one could beat people over the head with further questions, what I’m actually suggesting here is that you give them the opportunity to think through what they’ve said. Encouraging people to continue to share or develop their insight doesn’t turn them off.

    That said, if you did sense tension with the person, I think you’re right that it’d be a good idea to broaden your question to the entire class.

    Julie: great point – ask and you shall receive.

    Keith: If you’ve a hesitant class than starting with “the teacher can have his or her say” first can help break the ice. Of course a lot depends on the class. And yes, getting them to find what’s in the scriptures is certainly what it’s about, right?

  7. Kevin Barney on February 4, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    I often remind my class that when I ask questions I do not necessarily have a specific answer in mind. That gives them freedom to respond with what they’re genuinely feeling and thinking and to stop trying to guess where they think I’m going with the line of questioning, and results in more sincere and heartfelt responses.

  8. aquinas on February 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    I don’t feel prepared for any lesson unless I’ve taken time to carefully and thoughtfully craft questions. It’s the question that drives us.

    I like many of your suggestions. I would add a few that I think are important.

    1. It sometimes is useful to start off with questions that anyone can answer, even without having read the manual or even without being Mormon. Some people are visiting from another ward, just passing through, and some people are visiting a LDS meeting for the first time. The goal isn’t to test whether someone read the material.

    2. Ask questions that cannot be answered within a 30-45 minute period. The goal isn’t to come up with an answer within the limited time of the meeting. Ask questions that take weeks and months to answer. People should take questions home with them and chew on them for days.

    3. Sincerely listen to the answer. Never ask a question to which you don’t care about the answer. Never ask a question if you are only trying to buy yourself time to get to your next point. Only ask the question if you really want to know the answer. Then make sure you listen to what people really say. One of my goals is to always make sure that people know I am really listening.

    4. Always thank people for taking the time and sometimes the courage to share something that is important to them. There is nothing worse than hesitating and not feeling sure one should participate, then taking a risk and feeling the instructor wasn’t even listening to what you’ve said or didn’t even acknowledge your contribution. Regardless of whether I agree with a comment or answer. One of my goals is to create an environment where people feel their contribution is acknowledged and appreciated.

  9. Em on February 4, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    #4 is my personal pet peeve. When I as a class member can sense that an open-ended question is being asked but the teacher is only going to give credence to the answer they are fishing for, I am very apt to check-out from active participation in class. This tends toward a bulldozer approach to the lesson material that doesn’t leave a lot of room for revelation or personalization (but usually manages to get through to the end of the lesson as they have mapped it out, but at what cost?)

  10. Meldrum the Less on February 4, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    One item I think is extremely crucial. Class size.

    If your ward can’t find it within itself to call more than 1 teacher for 100 people, you have only one choice. Lecture. At its best lectures will put most people to sleep.

    Don’t sit by and hope the Bishopric or SS President is going to call more teachers. Go in and volunteer.

    What is the ideal class size? Depends on the members of the class. Some people want to fly below the teacher’s radar and will prefer a class larger than 30 or 40. But for people who want to really dig in and learn something, would 5 or 10 be too small? Can we image the impact for good that a dozen or more classes would have in a typical ward?

    The next problem is sorting out the people who attend into classes with teachers who will lift them. We have no formal way of doing this. We have to only hope it happens by luck. Assigning people by the letter of their last name is about the worst way I can imagine and that is exactly what my ward does,

    Only then, smaller classes and matched teachers and students, can you start to take the more sophisticated approach described above.

    Another pet peeve is people who have many words to say but have nothing in the way of thoughtful content in the words. How to shut them down without being too rude is always a challenge that few teachers are able to meet. Of course some of you might think I fall into this category.

  11. Beth on February 5, 2012 at 12:34 am

    This is a great list. And I really appreciate the intent of the question “I want to hear from a single sister about what motherhood means,” trying to include everyone and expand from the standard answer. But it violates my self-imposed rule to never single out single people. Being singled out for any reason can hurt too much.

  12. James Olsen on February 5, 2012 at 6:34 am

    Beth: I appreciate the feedback on that one. It’s undoubtedly a sensitive issue – and I think that in and of itself is the real tragedy. Hopefully we’ll grow past this as a church to the point that we all feel comfortable both giving and being solicited for our views as they relate to our personal backgrounds. I’m hopeful that we’ll get to the point that our diversity is both acknowledged and exploited as a strength, rather than shied away from as a source of genuine misunderstanding, alienation, and hurt.

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson on February 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    The questions we can ask of a class depends on their understanding of the scriptural text. If we as teachers just wear down the groove of the conventional assumptions about each passage, we will get the same “groovy” answers in that same channel of thought. We need to start with the actual text rather than the conventional customary meaning of the text, and ask questions that take our classes out of the standard catechism, so they are actually participating in reading the text and pondering what thoughts and emotions the words evoke. I would hope that questions would come from the class to me as instructor and to everyone else. Short of that happening, I try to duplicate for the class my own experience of closely reading the scripture chapters assigned and the questions which occurred to me.

    My two bits on “Why the Liahona?”: If God just gave each day’s directionof travel to Lehi by revelation, it would be difficult for Laman Lemuel if they were actually exercising faith in God, or obedience to their father. If their lack of faith and obedience caused Lehi to lose his directional sense, they could blame it on Lehi and claim it was simply his guesses all along. Having the directions given through an independent instrument gives them direct feedback on their faithfulness, without any ambiguity of coming through a human instrument. It operated like the pillar of cloud or fire that led the Israelites, even though they had Moses leading them. It literally contained the word of God and was a “type” of the rod of iron in Lehi’s dream, which had to be grasped.

  14. Alison Moore Smith on February 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    How did you get my old inservice lesson notes? ;)

    Spot on. Good questions are THE #1 key to good lessons.

  15. Janell on February 5, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    My teaching style tends towards questions-driven lessons. I firmly believe in “interrogating” people. I try to do such with a gentle hand by not pushing a person further than they’re comfortable, and that requires me to get to know each of my the class members and their comfort level. “Interrogating” is not to test or to put on the spot. Like the original post describes, follow-up questions are to draw out deeper thoughts and experiences.

  16. Nate R on February 7, 2012 at 1:12 am

    on interrogating class members:

    In principle I like working through someone’s thought process (especially when the first answer is “pray” and the last answer is something potentially way more interesting). But that eats up a ton of time. maybe it’s worth it, but I’m not sure. I’ll have to try it sometime.

    However, why not just ask them the question that will generate an interesting response from the get-go?(similar to your later strategies.) Say, “look, sometimes I pray and I still don’t know what to do. But presumably it is good for me to pay anyway. WHY?”

    Another suggestion about asking questions, is to repeat the student’s answers. Restating what the class member said makes them feel like they have been heard and validated, which encourages that student and others to continue to participate. Even if its a bad answer I try to take whatever is good in the comment and make the main idea sound better when I say it again in my own words. Of course its easy to do that with good comments. But I gush about how great the insights are that people share (and I mean it), which again validates the person commenting and encourages other people to do so.

WELCOME

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