Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Big Question

             The question I am asked most frequently about teaching is this one: “How do I come up with good questions to use in the classroom?”  This is a critical skill for a teacher to have because, “To ask and answer questions is at the heart of all learning and all teaching” (President Henry B. Eyring).  It would seem a simple thing to ask a question in class, and it is if you aren’t too particular about what follows. If, however, you want to stir up thinking and created a lively learning atmosphere in your classroom, you will need to learn how to craft excellent questions.

            When a person tells me about their inability to come up with great questions, my first response is always the same: “You can’t come up with good classroom questions because you don’t ask good questions as you read the material in preparation for the class.  You simply read the material.”  Most people read a text just to read it.  A teacher needs to read it and think about how to use it in class.  I find that the most effective way to do that is to ask questions of the text as I read it.  Here are 3 examples:

1.      I remember the first time I read the Iliad as an adult (this did not happen as I read it in high school because I just sort of faked my way through it).  I was struck with the opening line: “Sing O Goddess, the anger of Achilles…”  Why was he so angry?  How did his anger reach a point where it caused multiple deaths (which the line goes on to say)?  Why is this the very opening line of the story?  I was full of questions from just those seven words and I read awaiting the answers from the text.  Those are questions that could launch a discussion.

2.      This summer I read a book entitled “Empire of the Summer Moon” about the Comanche nation in North America.  For 150-200 years, up to about 1880, they were the undisputed rulers of the great middle section of the continent, from Texas, and New Mexico on the south up through Kansas and Nebraska.  They were fierce warriors, incredible horsemen, and ruled their territory.  Their power kept the Spaniards from moving further north from Mexico and the French from moving west out of the New Orleans area.  Both groups wanted to keep colonizing but were bottled up by the Comanche protecting their lands.  As I discovered that insight in the text, I started asking questions:  how did that help or hinder further migrations by different people?  What caused the demise of their power and did that hasten migration?  How different would America be today if the French had colonized much further west, or the Spaniards farther to the north?   Can you see how questions like that could really enable discussion?

3.      When I read the scriptures I am full of questions.  Recently I was reading in Luke 17 and found this in verse 5: “Lord, increase our faith” and immediately I wondered what is the way to increase faith?  So I read the subsequent verses slowly and found that in 6-10 He uses a story to outline one way and in verses 11-19 He shares a second way to do it.  I would have never seen that if I had not asked a question of the text.

If you struggle to come up with good questions try doing this – have a conversation
with the text as you read through it.  The three examples above all could have just been an ‘ooh and ah’ moment in the reading but I asked questions and was stirred up.  Be full of wonder.  Think deeply.  Probe and push and pull.  The questions that bubble up as you read can be turned into good questions that you can ask your students in class.

      I’m going to devote the next couple of posts to the art of asking questions, both how to do it and how not to do it.


  1. My entire approach to reading was changed the moment I learned to ask questions. I rarely get an answer to my questions right away but it stimulates my brain and makes the text I am reading stick.

  2. Interesting. --I'm embarrassed to admit that scripture reading is a weakness of mine. I shall try this method of asking questions and perhaps it will excite me enough to pick it up again, day after day after day! --Thanks. :)

  3. I read a lot and never even realized I was asking myself questions in this manner until you mentioned it here but that's exactly what I do and didn't know it. Now I know what to do with those questions!

  4. Thank you for this post! I was recently called to teach Sunday School for the 13-14 year old youths. I am always looking for ways to engage in good conversation and get them excited about what we are learning.