Note from Bob: If you lead a Discussion Group or Bible Study or Sunday School Class you will not want to miss the wisdom that Karen Lee-Thorp shares on “How to Ask Great Questions.”
A test is a situation in which the person asking the questions knows all the right answers, and the responder’s task is to give the right answers. Test questions are fine in high-school algebra class or in the oral exam for a doctoral candidate. Test questions are useful when your goal is to see if people can parrot back information they have memorized, such as in a foreign-language class. However, when either spiritual growth or sharing among peers is a goal of your group, test questions can cause problems.
For one thing, tests tend to put people on the defensive—they worry about giving the wrong answer and appearing foolish, so their pulse rises and adrenaline flows. Adrenaline is good for those running marathons, but it hinders creative thinking. In fact, it actually floods out those portions of the brain in which people do creative thinking.
By contrast, a relaxed but stimulating environment, one in which people feel welcomed and engaged, is the kind most likely to encourage people to consider new ideas, examine their lives, and entertain the possibility of changing their behavior.
Second, tests imply a hierarchy. The teacher has the right answers and so is superior to the students. In a class on prayer, it may be true that the teacher knows more about prayer than the students do. The teacher may impart some of his or her knowledge to the students. But when the teacher asks a question about prayer, it needs to be very clear in everyone’s mind whether the teacher wants the class to think for themselves or repeat something the teacher has said. A test question is okay if everyone understands they are reviewing material they have heard before, but when a test question is disguised as a discussion question, people feel put down. A group designed for spiritual growth requires shared power and an atmosphere of mutual respect. Test questions disguised as discussion questions don’t feel respectful.
As a rule of thumb, discussion questions usually look for information members of the group have but the leader may not have:
In all of these cases, the person asking the question is looking for something he or she genuinely doesn’t know. That’s how questions work in normal conversation.
However, when the task at hand involves drawing out the facts of a text, there are some important questions to be asked that have right-or-wrong answers:
Because fact-finding or observation questions tend to have right answers, and because the person asking the question has usually spent more time examining the text than the responders have, it’s easy for such questions to make a discussion feel like a test. Chapter 3 will address how to ask observation questions in a way that minimizes the test feeling, avoids boring the group, and yet draws out the essential facts.
What does a disguised test question look like? It may ask for mind reading:
Since Paul doesn’t list five principles in any obvious way in Romans 8, this question asks responders to read the questioner’s mind. The group leader has identified five principles in the chapter, and the group’s job is to figure out what they are. In chapter 3, we’ll discuss the difference between asking people to observe what the text says and asking them to read your mind.
Alternatively, a test question may ask people for information not currently available to them:
Flesh is a somewhat technical term in Paul’s vocabulary. Scholars have a lively debate running between at least two points of view. It would be helpful to explain this word in a few clear sentences to your group, but unless you know your group has heard this information before, it’s probably unwise to ask them to supply it. You’re likely to be met with embarrassed silence and have to answer the question yourself. You have then asked a rhetorical question, not fostered a discussion.
Chances are that if you do this often enough, people will begin to assume that all of your questions are rhetorical and will stop trying to answer them.
Even worse, a test question may ask people to defend themselves:
Q: What do you think Paul means by saying we were dead in our sins?
A: I think he means . . .
Q: Why do you say that?
“What do you think” is a perfectly respectable way to ask a question. It asks for information that the responder has and the questioner does not have. However, “Why?” as a follow-up question can make people fear you think their answer was defective. In chapter 6, we’ll explore ways of probing for more information without placing people on the defensive.
If you’ve watched much TV courtroom drama, you know that attorneys often lead witnesses because it is to the interrogator’s advantage to make the witness say what he wants the jury to hear. You also know that leading the witness usually causes the opposing attorney to object.
A small-group leader or classroom teacher may want the group to get at some information she thinks is important. But being committed to a question-and-answer format, she may ask something like
Each of these questions puts words into the responders’ mouths. “Don’t you think” is a manipulative way of telling people what to think. There’s nothing wrong with a leader saying what he thinks, as long as he takes responsibility for those thoughts: “I think that not taking the Lord’s name in vain includes . . .” “Don’t you think” introduces a teaching point or opinion disguised as a question.
The second question assumes that everybody in the group resembles the Pharisees. Perhaps it’s true that we’re all hypocritical or greedy or cowardly to some degree, but most of us prefer to confess our own sins rather than having others do it for us. This question has the feel of “When did you stop beating your wife?”
The third question offers an either/or alternative. It assumes there are only two possible responses to the passage. Anyone who finds the passage unnerving or sad or perhaps partly encouraging and partly threatening is out of luck. Either/or questions usually lead the witness.
How does the lack of forgiveness affect the one who has done harm, the one who has been harmed, and each person’s relationship with God?
If you read that question a couple of times, you could probably take it apart and answer it piece by piece. But if you only heard it, you’d have forgotten the first part by the time you heard the last. It’s best to ask just one simple question and wait for responses before asking the next piece:
And so on. This principle is actually a subset of a larger one:
Keep questions simple enough that everybody has a reasonable chance of knowing what you mean the first time you say it. In addition to multiple questions like the one above, this principle weeds out questions with several linked clauses:
Since eating meat sacrificed to idols might be confusing to a person who doesn’t know the idols are nothing, and since eating meat in temples might inadvertently involve one in idolatrous worship, what is Paul’s advice to the strong Christians in 1 Corinthians 8 regarding meat?
Technical terms can also leave people in the dust:
In 1 Corinthians 7, how does Paul apply an eschatological hermeneutic to our process of decision-making about relationships?
I routinely scan my questions for words like paradigm whose meaning most people don’t quite know but think they should.
Jesus’ questions were always simple. Even so, nobody ever felt He was asking a question that was beneath his or her intelligence. Keeping the cookies where people can reach them doesn’t require us to talk down to them. The simplest questions are usually the most profound.
It’s easier to say what you mean when you keep a question simple. Still, it’s often a good idea to go back over a list of questions and ask yourself, “Is this what I mean to ask?”
What does it mean to the way we live that human beings are members of the family of God?
That’s not a terrible question, but maybe what I really want to ask is “How do you think being members of God’s family should affect the way we live?” That seems clearer.
What does Pilate say when Jesus starts talking about truth?
It’s okay to ask someone to quote the text before I ask them what the statement means. But perhaps it will be more economical for me to observe what Pilate says and ask the group what he means:
When Pilate says, “What is truth?” what do you think he’s asking Jesus? How would you put his question in your own words?
I’m always on the lookout for vagueness:
How do you respond to what Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-20?
This question is likely to leave people wondering what kind of response I’m asking about. An emotional response? An opinion about the truth or falsehood of Jesus’ statement? A personal application? I should specify
What feelings does Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17-20 evoke in you?
In what ways is this paragraph relevant to us since we do not live under the Jewish law?
Again, simplicity rules. When formulating your question, be on the lookout for common detours like unnecessary clauses, irrelevant background, and double negatives.
Why does it not make sense to not rely on the Spirit of God rather than on the flesh?
Why does Paul think it makes more sense to rely on the Spirit than on the flesh?
Q: Do you identify with the disciples in this passage?
A: Not really.
“No” and “Yes” are not great conversation starters. A person can answer yes or no without even engaging his brain. By contrast, an open-ended question compels people to be attentive to the facts of a text or situation or to think carefully about the meaning of the facts.
There’s nearly always a way to change a yes-or-no question into the question you really mean to ask:
In what ways, if any, do you identify with the disciples here?
Without assuming that everyone must identify with the disciples, this question asks what we really want to know: not just whether, but how group members identify with the story. Notice that “In what ways” is even more open-ended than “In what way” because the latter assumes people can’t identify in several ways.
Are there seven key words in this paragraph?
This question both leads the witness and asks for merely a yes-or-no answer. What we mean is
What key words do you notice in this paragraph?
Fact-finding questions become boring when they are closed-ended, asking for a single word or short phrase:
According to Genesis 1: 1, who created the heavens and the earth?
Chapter 3 will explore ways of keeping fact questions from insulting the group.
It’s easy for a guided discussion to focus on the leader. The leader asks a question, and one person answers. The leader asks another question, and another person answers. Everyone looks at the leader and talks to the leader.
In a healthy group, people talk to each other. The leader asks a question, someone responds, and someone else responds to what the previous person said. They look at each other. If people are not automatically talking to each other, there are ways to encourage them to do so. Chapter 5 will address follow-up questions that help people respond to one another. Chapter 2 will explain how getting people to tell their stories builds the kinds of relationships that undergird genuine discussions.
Some people like to leap immediately into discussing what a passage of the Bible or a chapter of a book means to them personally without examining what it says. Such discussions can quickly lose sight of the topic or passage you’re studying. By zeroing in on the details—characters, events, setting, key words, and phrases—we see things in a text that may alter our preconceptions. Chapter 3 will equip you to help a group dig out the details.
Incidentally, some people are detail people. They enjoy wading into the minutiae, and they do it well. When you spot people with this gift, recognize them for it. You can assign them the task of laying out the key details for the group and then thank them for their contribution. With any luck, others in the group will begin to appreciate the value of details and will also begin to ask themselves the important question “What gifts do I bring to this group?”
On the other hand, some people are good at seeing the big picture. Since the forest is as important as the trees, encourage those in your group who are good at
Chapter 6 will address when and how to ask for a summary or check for a consensus about a decision. Chapter 7 will discuss how these other big-picture issues contribute to effective application of learning to life. Also included in chapter 7 is a general outline of how all the types and techniques explored in this book can work together during a typical small-group meeting.
But first, chapter 2 will unpack a principle so important that it could easily rank with these top ten: build relationships. Without an increasingly solid foundation of trust, no group discussion can build very high. And questions are an essential component in the process of laying that foundation.
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