Student Questions

I found the following seminary teaching advice from Joe Spencer to be quite valuable and wanted to post a piece of it here.  I agree that “the process of learning—and so the process of teaching—is the process of moving from immediate answers to unanswerable questions, from supposed knowledge to recognized ignorance. And that ignorance, fully recognized, is what leads one to stand before God.”  I have found the most rewarding classroom experiences to be when the students check in and start digging into the text in new and exciting ways.  They start asking questions that demonstrate that they are wrestling with the text, seeking ways to change their lives and viewpoints to match the inspired principles taught by the prophets who have left us this rich scriptural text.  From my own personal experience, I have found that the more answers I find in the scriptures, the more questions I have.  This causes me to come before the Lord seeking His guidance in my life as well as in my understanding of His word.  You can read all of Joe’s post here.

Questions Are Crucial

Questions are the very form of great teaching. And by that I mean both the teacher’s questions to the students and the students’ questions to the teacher. Where genuinely probing questions are not coming from both teacher and student, something is not working right.

I should note from the start here that this point is not aimed at quantity. To be able to pose a single real question in the course of a lesson is a real success. I do not have reference here to the passing questions we have to ask again and again like “What does this word mean?” or “What does that text imply?” Those aren’t so much questions as prompts, reminders to the students that they have the task of working through a text. When I speak here of questions, I mean the question that takes shape over the course of the first twenty or thirty minutes of a lesson. All of the work being undertaken together in the classroom is building toward one question, likely unanswerable, that will effectively summon the students into a direct relationship with God. But that does not mean that the questions are “existential.” That is, I don’t have in mind here questions like “Will you live worthy of a celestial resurrection?” or “Do you really believe this gospel?” The questions will be, at least on the surface, more deeply interpretive, but questions that nonetheless orient the individual to God. Possible examples: “Why does Nephi ground his entire record on this vision of the book and the remnant?” “How does Alma’s discussion of angels recast the very meaning of the Book of Mormon?” “Why does this faith/hope/charity business emerge only so late in this book?” And so on. On the surface, these questions look like mere interpretive questions, one’s likely to invite speculation at best. But my experience is that, if they emerge in the wake of serious study of the text, they tend to make an enormous difference. It is a question like this that forces the student to realize that their basic assumptions might be entirely misguided, to see that they have always had answers to these questions that they have never actually asked, but that those answers are uninformed and misguided. Questions like these help students to realize that commitment to the gospel requires deep thought, that, as Joseph Smith says, taking the gospel seriously requires the mind to expand as wide as eternity.

The implication of this emphasis on questions is that our usual way of treating lessons has to be reversed. While we usually tend to think of questions as preliminary and of answers as building toward a conclusion, we have instead to think of prompts and their immediate responses as building toward an open question. The process of learning—and so the process of teaching—is the process of moving from immediate answers to unanswerable questions, from supposed knowledge to recognized ignorance. And that ignorance, fully recognized, is what leads one to stand before God.

Now, as I’ve mentioned, the questions the students pose are quite as important as the questions the teacher poses. There is perhaps little one can do to make the students pose genuine or productive questions, because they have to issue from the student’s own position before God. Questions, that is, tend to come out of students’ mouths precisely when they begin to realize that they have work to do, when they are converted. And that is something we can only prepare for, not manipulate or control. But there is something quite crucial we can do when the questions are asked: we must take questions from students as seriously as possible. I’ve already told the story about the student (in a teachers quorum) who asked what seemed a flippant question, but which turned out to be vital for the student. Every time a student ventures a question, we should take it as seriously as possible. To take it seriously, of course, seldom means immediately to answer it. Usually, it calls for a counter-question: “What do you mean by this or that word?” “Explain what’s behind your question a bit more?” “What thoughts do you have in response to your own question?” And sometimes it calls for a word of encouragement: “That is a crucial question, one we ought as Latter-day Saints all to be asking.” “If I had an answer to that question, I’d be impressed with myself. But we’ve all got to get to work on it.” And so on. The short of it is that we can’t overlook those crucial moments when students forget themselves and begin to seek truth right in our presence. That suddenly emergent quest on the student’s part (in the form of a quest-ion) must be encouraged in every way possible.

Such, at any rate, is my conviction.

About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives:
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