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Questions, Lecture, and Engagement
In stressful times, parish educators tend to rely on existing methods, or for the sake of this blog, “tools,” for accomplishing educational goals. The primary teaching tool we have in our mental toolbox, I submit, is straight-up lecture. There is nothing wrong with lecturing, sharing, or “talking at” people. As a pastor, oftentimes this is what I feel expected to do when called upon to teach. I’m sure many of you, both lay and called, feel the same. The main issue with lecture, however, is that it often provides little opportunity to measure learner engagement. So when we want to see if anybody’s actually listening to us, we usually turn to our secondary tool of teaching: asking questions.
A Common Problem with Asking Questions (a.k.a. Fishing)
I love the possibilities that come with asking questions. However, asking questions can end up being a disappointing tool. This is because we usually want to use the questions to help engage the learners in the learning process. We want questions to break up times of lecturing so the learners get more out of the experience, no matter how long (a Bible class) or short (a devotion). The difficulty lies in the reality that when we ask questions, our general default method of asking and answering usually engages only one or two learners out of the whole group. We simply don’t know if the class is engaged.
The traditional way of questioning looks something like fishing: the educator talks for a while, then asks a question (or “casts the line”). This question usually has only one or two possible answers. Then a few learners raise their hands if they think they have the correct answer (these few “take the bait” while the rest sit back and watch). The teacher calls on one learner at a time, saying that the learner either has the incorrect answer (“release the fish” and call on another learner) or the correct answer (“catch the fish” and move on to the next question). This method keeps order in the educational setting and is not in itself bad; it is useful for moving class along. The problem here is that it is self-defeating if the point of asking the question in the first place was to engage as many learners as possible. Fishing for an answer from a class of raised hands requires only a few learners to be engaged at a time. In fact, I’d submit that if this method of asking and answering questions is the norm in your setting, then your learners know they don’t have to engage if they don’t want to. They already know that only one or two of them in the class/group/meeting have to be thinking about the answer (and they probably already have those two people who answer every question pegged). The rest of the group—those who don’t usually raise their hands to answer these questions—can just sit back, tune out, and wait for the end of the experience, if they so wish.
A Simple Tool for Asking Questions Differently
If your desire is to engage as many learners as you can with each question and so break up your time of lecturing and stimulate discussion, try asking yourself this simple question before asking your learners their question: What if there was no hand raising? What if this wasn’t an option for you or for them for this question? What would be some alternatives for the learners in answering—alternatives that would require each one of them to be engaged in answering the question? It doesn’t matter if the question you ask is a simple one made up on the spot or one used from the study guide of the curriculum you’re using. Asking “what if I got rid of hand raising for this question” opens up a lot of possibilities, including these:
- Having the learners write down their answer to the question privately on a piece of paper
- Giving the learners a good twelve seconds of think time to formulate their answer in their head
- Making learners turn to a partner and share their answer to the question with that person
- Going around the room (or in small groups), with each learner sharing an answer
- Picking random (with a fair method of making it random) learners to share their answers with the group after giving each one proper time to formulate an answer (writing down first helps)
Asking the “what if” question with hand raising will not always be practical or easy, but it is a very useful tool to keep in the back of your mind as a parish educator. Sometimes hand raising and fishing both work well. Other times this method can feel stale or like pulling teeth. As in all matters of parish education, knowing the balance of lecture and questioning, the two basic tools, is an art that we continue to practice and develop as we all strive to live faithfully. Blessings in your ministry!
Rev. Pete Jurchen
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