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There are a multitude of different models for questions and how best to use them. A useful book for me has been Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. In my reading and armchair research, I’ve found it useful to think of questions in a framework of five different categories. It is my hope that this framework of questions, moving from the least in depth to the most, will be helpful to you also as you create a variety of learning experiences in your parish education. The categories are hooking, fishing, checking, reflection, and essential.
The Answer: What each learner is thinking.
What They Are: These are the questions that are designed to spark immediate interest and hook the attention of the learners. These are sometimes “opening” questions that help introduce a topic or idea. The point of these questions is, really, to elicit a response from all the learners. Hooks are meant to be open ended and up for debate. Examples include “Why do you think people …,” or “Do you agree with …” Other times hooks are “icebreaker” questions, designed to get the learners engaged with one another on a personal level. Icebreakers usually involve asking the learners to share a fun story or something less directly involved with the topic at hand. Examples include “Share a time when …” or “List both a high and low from your week.”
How to Use Them: Hooking questions should be used with some restraint, which is difficult. It is easy to spend an entire learning experience (especially a youth group or Bible study) discussing an opening thought or an icebreaker. This is because these questions are meant to spark interest and encourage learner interpretation to get the juices flowing. If the point of the experience is an educational objective, however, then hooking questions should be used sparingly; for instance, for only a few minutes at a time when opening an experience or introducing a new concept. These questions can easily be asked to a big group and discussed quickly in pairs or small groups before moving on to the rest of the lesson.
The Answer: What the teacher is thinking.
What They Are: These questions are best used to move along a lesson. Teachers who use these are really fishing for what they are thinking about at that moment. The answer normally is a word or a thought. There may or may not be an objectively correct answer, as a fishing question isnt looking for that as much as to see if the learners can anticipate what the teacher will say next. Usually, a teacher will try to maintain a dialogue with the learners by throwing out a fishing question and then asking for one answer at a time until someone gets the “right” answer. Once the fishing question is answered correctly by one learner, then the learning experience quickly moves to the next phase.
How to Use Them: This is a difficult topic. When I was growing up, it seemed that 90 percent of the questions we were asked in school or church were fishing questions. As I wrote in a previous post, much of the time these questions engage only two or three learners. How we use them, then, is important. They are most useful in helping the learners follow the teacher’s train of thought so that instruction can be quickly moved along. As they are often improvised on the fly, watch yourself so you don’t get in the habit of too much fishing. Try switching gears to ask reflection or checking questions to better engage all the learners.
The Answer: The correct answer.
What They Are: Checking questions are a lot like fishing questions, but with one substantial difference: they have a “right” answer. These questions look toward a simple or concrete answer, and they focus mainly on memory or recall of facts. Examples include “What is six times seven” or “In what city was the temple located?”
How to Use Them: One would think that checking questions would be simple to use. Unlike fishing questions, however, checking questions usually require more preparation. Checking questions require each of the learners to have appropriate time to learn the factual correct answers before they can be checked. Otherwise, these can quickly become fishing questions, where the learners are not attempting to recall facts or ideas but instead trying to get into the teacher’s head. When answering these, it may be useful to ask learners to write down their answer first on a piece of paper (give plenty of time for this), share their best guess with a partner, or brainstorm together in small groups before revealing to them the correct answer. This way, checking questions can act as a sort of formative assessment, where the teacher can check what the learners have learned while they all move through a learning experience together. After asking a checking question, then, it is useful for the teacher to ask the learners to give feedback (a thumbs up or thumbs down works well) as to how well they did on getting the correct answer on their own. The teacher can then use this feedback to adjust the instruction.
The Answer: Each learner’s reflection on the question.
What They Are: These questions focus on a learner’s response. They are phrased in such a way as to help guide the learner to an appropriate application of a truth or to encourage exploration of a topic. Where hooking questions are simply intended to elicit any learner response, reflection questions are specifically pointed toward moving a learner from recall to greater understanding. Though these questions don’t always need to be supported, answers to reflections usually need to be backed up by facts.
How to Use Them: Reflection questions can be used to great success to bring breaks to any learning experience. They ask the learners to apply some life knowledge, guiding them toward greater depth than a simple fishing or checking question. Unlike when you use hooking questions, though, it’s important to have some general or even very specific goal in mind when asking reflective questions. Consider where you want to steer the learners. What sorts of applications or greater understandings of an idea would signal a “win” for you when posing the question? By keeping the end in mind, you can successfully use reflection questions to help guide learners to better understand the objective. It’s important, therefore, to strategically place reflection questions at moments when it’s best for the learners to step back and process content for themselves. Encouraging learners to share their answers in pairs or small groups before opening up to a large group will engage as many learners in reflection as possible.
The Answer: Each learner’s unfolding understanding of a big idea.
What They Are: These are some of the most challenging questions to craft and explain. In short, they are the big ideas put into question form. Answers to these are uncovered over time as the question is asked in a variety of ways in different circumstances. They are open-ended in nature, having necessary answers but never answers fully sufficient to completely master. Answers to these can transfer beyond one subject into other areas of life or study. On the broadest scale, examples include “Who is man?” and “What is God’s relationship to me?”
How to Use Them: Outside the parish, essential questions are usually at the heart of unit design. Educators mine the central enduring understandings of a unit, and then form these unfolding, open-ended questions to help guide the learners as they move through the unit. In the parish, however, we generally have to plan for shorter periods of instruction than in the classroom (usually just a one-off Bible class or a four-week small-group study). Never fear, however. As Lutherans, we have a fundamental set of essential questions (and answers) already at our disposal in the Small Catechism. If you’d like to incorporate essential questions more into your learning experience, first think about the subject of your lesson or the focus of whatever curriculum you’re using. Is it about prayer? If so, take a look at the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism and zoom in on one particular petition. Look up Luther’s explanation, and form a question to help guide the learners into uncovering that truth. For example, in a lesson/class/devotion about avoiding temptations to sin, a possible essential question could be “How do the devil, the world, and our sinful nature deceive us or lead us into great shame and vice?” This question has necessary answers, which will continually be uncovered by the learners as they progress through life. This question also helps lead the learners back to the bigger question of prayer, or how we live faithfully within our baptismal identities. By beginning any learning experience with an essential question, and then by returning to it at the end of the same experience, you will be modeling how to align all that is done in parish education to the fundamental understandings of the faith. In other words, use these questions frequently, yet in small numbers, and continually return to them in the varied experiences of parish education.
Though this list is not comprehensive, I’ve found these five categories to be useful to me in self-checking my teaching strategies. When preparing a learning experience, no matter how short or how long, it’s helpful to me to think about what sorts of questions I would like to ask and why. I think about how best to switch up questions so I’m not always asking fishing or reflection questions. It is helpful during a lesson to take a step back and see if I’m stuck in a rut with one kind of question. If so, and my learners are falling asleep, it may be useful to throw a reflection or a hooking question into the mix. If I’m unsure if the learners are actually following my train of thought, I think about what kind of checking question I could ask along the way, and how the learners could each communicate their answer to me during class. By taking a step back and examining what we do, we can all enrich our parish settings.
Rev. Pete Jurchen
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