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.


  1. thank you for posting such inspiring and stimulating thought provoking concepts. I am always given cause for pause and reflection whenever I read your posts. just like those unanswered questions in a classroom.

  2. This is a great idea! I think I will try it this Sunday

  3. Love it! Trying it in seminary after break.