Friday, March 20, 2015

Unanswered Questions

Karl G. Maeser, a leading 19th century educator, once said, "A great question is often worth ten answers." Think about that for a minute. We generally think of getting answers as the goal of asking questions. The teacher asks, the students answer, and we feel like we are making some educational progress. That doesn't appear to be what he is saying. I think he is saying that the purpose of a great question is to stir up thought that could come back in the form of ten different answers, or comments, or other thoughts or more questions.

An unanswered question creates tension. A teacher can see the tension in the students who avert their eyes, who look away, who put their head down. There is tension in the attempted answers, in the one or two word mumblings. The tension is relieved when a brave student offers a response and the teacher accepts it. The other students breathe a little easier and can now look around with some safety. Things return to normal, until the next question is posed.

But what if the teacher asked a question not to find an answer but just as something for the class to think about. What if the teacher says "class here is a question to think about? Don't shout out anything right now, just think about this and at some time we will come to an answer of it, but not yet." The tension is eased because no one is on the spot and the teacher isn't waiting for the answer. A great question is now hovering over the class and it can be more valuable than the ten answers that might have been forthcoming. How?

I have a dear friend that I discuss gospel topics with. He is very wise and experienced and I trust him. I started this practice with him years ago and this is how it goes. I tell him that I have a question I want to ask but I do not want him to answer. I just want him to tell me if it is a good question, one worth thinking about. We've done this enough that he knows the drill so when I ask a question now he will just tell me either to keep thinking about it or to set it aside because it is not worth the time to ponder. It has been an amazing thing to me to spend time on the questions that are worthwhile. Without an answer they are wide open for inspection. I can spend time over the next days or weeks or even months in many cases with these questions. I can keep a number of them juggling in my mind and then as I read or study other things, as I attend other classes, as I talk to other people, I can start to grab more information that will help me fill in answers. Some weeks will pass in pondering then I will see my friend and tell him that I think I have an answer, or a partial answer, to a certain question. I will share it with him and he will then tell me that I got it or am getting closer. Once in a while I will share an insight with him that he had never considered. The discussion deepens and the conversation continues. He has never told me an answer but has confirmed many that I have shared with him.

That is a long process the way I've described it, but it can be compressed down to a class period or two like this: Ask a question that takes some thought to answer. Here's one from D&C 124:45 - the verse speaks of doing some things that will allow us to "not be moved out of [our] place." The question I would ask is "We know what it takes to not be moved out our place. Where is that place and how do we get there?" Keep that unanswered question hovering as you discuss the verses close to verse 45. Help the class look for hints as to where it might be and what do we have to do to get there. What will inevitably happen is more questions will surface. A multitude of answers will bubble up. The original great question will indeed be more valuable than ten quick answers because it will engender more discussion, more questions, and more answers. It will become a very useful tool to help students understand the scriptures.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Creative Process

                Teaching is a creative process. Teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ is a creative process that must include the influence of the Holy Ghost in order to be effective.

            The creation of teaching starts in lesson preparation. What is the block of scriptures that need to be addressed today? What are the salient doctrines and principles to address? How will adding content and context benefit student understanding? How can I give my students some level of ‘hands on’ learning that will benefit them, rather than just have them listen to me? Answering those and similar question will yield a lesson plan. You can’t just walk into a class without some kind of written plan that will guide you through and make the time meaningful and useful.

            In II Nephi 32 there are two verses that look strikingly similar but are talking about two different things. The first is verse 3 where it says “…feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.” Two verses later, in verse 5 we read this: “…if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.”

            The verse 3 phrase “tell you all things” seems to indicate that the words of Christ are the scriptures. Those are the standards that hold true through the ages. They guide us – “tell us” – how we should act and what we should be doing. That’s why we feast upon them. The verse 5 phrase that the Holy Ghost will “show unto us all things we should do” is more of an everyday, tactical revelation. Scriptures teach us the doctrines and principles that we need to know to govern our lives, but the Holy Ghost shows us along the way how to implement those in practical ways. We need both sources of input to successfully negotiate our way in this life.

            So it is in a classroom full of students. We enter with a lesson plan that we have created for that particular situation. That plan will ‘tell us’ what to do. We can’t be rigidly bound to it but neither should we just try to talk our way through the hour with no real preparation. We need to have a guide before us. However, rarely does the class go as planned. Detours abound as we deal with real people in their own real situations. That’s why we need the Spirit with us, to show us how to proceed in a class. It may be to stay on this point a little longer, or to move on a little quicker. It may be to call on a student who rarely participates but one who looks like they have something to say. It could be to leave a certain student alone on this day. She may be struggling with something unknown and unseen by the teacher and just needs space. How will we know any or all of these things? The Spirit can show us and with that knowledge coupled to the lesson plan we have in hand we are able to create a classroom environment and a lesson that is edifying and useful for all.