Teachers shouldn’t ask questions to get answers

It doesn’t matter what kind of teacher: public, private, or church Sunday School, the purpose of asking questions isn’t to get answers

(Not my actual Sunday School class, but roughly the same amount of kids.)

If only adults could understand that.

While I’ve taught college freshmen for over twenty years, I’ve also taught classes in my church. Right now I’m responsible to teach Sunday School to 15-16 year-olds, and because there was some kind of baby boom back in 1999, I have a class of 19 teenagers right now. The leaders in my LDS ward think I need “Help,” and today was a classic example of Question Anxiety.

That’s the best way I can put it: when I ask a question, the “Help” jumps in to answer it. Remember, the “Help” is a well-intentioned adult; but this class is for the teenagers, and when I pose a question they sit for a few seconds, thinking.

And that’s exactly what I want: I do not want answers; I want thought.

The older gentleman helping today obviously wasn’t comfortable with the silence, and tried to fill it each time it manifest itself.

But I love the silence! Wonderful things happen during it.

First, there’s the first five uncomfortable seconds when teens give each other the sidelong glance to see if anyone has an immediate answer.

That’s when the adults get nervous, and want to supply something—anything.

Because adults often work with A Plan. No matter what the task or chore or goal, most adults want A Plan, and getting quickly from point B to task H is imperative. Give answers, get moving along.

It’s because most of us were raised in the public school system which, even worse now than ever, has A Plan that must completed, no matter the needs of the children, no matter the level of interest—The Plan (quite often linked to Common Core) must be accomplished.

My son’s 11-year-old friend encountered this the other day. A substitute teacher set up four stuffed animals: a whale, a tiger, a dolphin, and an octopus. She asked the 5th graders which animal didn’t belong in the group.

Before you read further, what would your answer be?

Nice meme. Would read easier if the last two lines were, “to ask questions that EVEN YOU can’t answer.” But you get the idea . . .

My son’s friend said, “The octopus. Because all the other animals are mammals.”

That wasn’t the “right” answer, and the substitute, for whatever reason, came down a bit hard on him for not giving her answer. Instead of acknowledging that his answer was correct as well, and instead of stepping back and thinking, “Hey, clever. I hadn’t considered that,” she instead snapped at him that the tiger didn’t fit, because the rest of the animals were aquatic animals.

Stick to The Plan. Move along. The point isn’t education. The point is completing the task.

How tragic. This 11-year-old was thinking. He was right!

And that’s what teachers should want when they ask questions: the questions should make students THINK!

That’s what happens in my Sunday School class after those first five uncomfortable seconds. In the next five, kids start to muse to themselves, No one else is saying anything . . . maybe I should come up with something?

Another five seconds, and then a hand tentatively goes up with a comment I grin at and write on the board.

Then another hand. And another.

Yes! They’ll get there, without someone stepping in and supplying the answer too quickly for them.

But there’s still one more thing I want to have happen when I ask a question. Thinking is first, their responses is second, and then . . .

Well, let me tell you what happened today. The topic was The Nature of God, and I opened with asking the students, “What do you know about God?”

That was when the Helper, after five seconds, jumped in with several statements of what he, a sixty-year-old man, knew. Frankly, I didn’t care what he knew. I wanted to know what my 15-year-olds knew.

Eventually, they began to offer bits and pieces which I put on the board.

When I wrote, “Jesus has a body of flesh and bones, and not blood,” that’s when the magic happened.

One girl raised her hand. “Wait, Jesus doesn’t have blood anymore?”

“Nope,” I told her. “Resurrected beings don’t. He can’t die anymore, or even be injured.”

A couple of other teens weren’t aware of that either, and then came more questions. “So he could go skydiving and nothing bad would happen to him?”

“You got it. And here’s the awsome part—all of us will someday be resurrected too, with a perfect body of flesh and bone.”

Here’s where the discussion shifted into a little bit of silliness, but I let it.

“So when I’m resurrected, I can do extreme sports and not worry about getting hurt?”

“That’s right!”

Do you see what happened there?

The kids started asking the questions!

THAT should be the goal of every teacher’s lesson: not getting answers to our questions, but getting questions from our students. That means they’re interested. They’re thinking. They’re engaged!

And it doesn’t happen too often, unfortunately. I’ve heard of too many kids asking a question in school, and being told, after an awkward pause, “I’m not really sure, and since it’s not on the test, let’s not worry about that right now.”

Talk about killing the desire to learn. Kids have it naturally. It’s mostly gone by middle school. Can you see how it died?

I’ve also seen this a lot in my freshmen college students. After 12 years in the system, they rarely ask questions more compelling than, “Does the Works Cited page count as part of the six page requirement?”

Oh, I try. I bring in articles about issues directly affecting them, I show them entertaining video clips, and I purposely throw out nuggets such as, “Your high school teacher probably told you to never use the word ‘I’ in your papers, but we all know that’s total rubbish, along with never beginning a sentence with, ‘Because.’”

It’ll take a moment, but always a student will raise a hand and say, “Wait—we can begin a sentence with ‘Because’? What about ‘But’?” And for five minutes we have an interesting discussion, because a student wanted to know that answer, not because the teacher was looking for a programmed response.

Think back to any lectures you remember from college or high school. Do you remember any of them? At all? I remember a handful, and every one of them began with a question a student wanted answered, and ended with a teacher involving all of us in the discussion.

That is education. That is learning.

And it’s rarely happening anymore.

sunday school picture

Click here to see the curriculum for all of the youth in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Go ahead–we don’t bite. At least not that hard.

As for my Sunday School class today, Helper began to realize the kids were capable of answering the questions, and to his credit he backed off a bit, especially after I refused to make eye contact with him, but focused solely on the kids. They came through for me again, as they always do, with even a few more interesting questions that filled our 40 minutes quite easily. The LDS Church has purposely changed its curriculum for teenagers 12-18 so that they can run the pace of the lesson, and not the teachers.

If only school systems could do that as well: respect the child as a person wanting to learn, instead of part of a group that needs processing.

Not only would our children be smarter with that kind of child-focused education, but they’d be happier too, which should always be our foremost goal in education: happiness.

This was one of the things Mahrree loved about teaching: the rare moments when a student dares to wonder. The best learning happened when the students asked the questions, not the teachers.

It was also at these moments that she panicked, because sometimes the questions were so unexpected that she was caught by surprise. But it was the good kind of panic that lets you remember you’re alive, like being chased by a dog you know you can outrun, but it terrifies you just the same. It feels great when you finally reach home, or see the dog yanked back suddenly by its leash and you gloat at it triumphantly.

But first you have to run.

She always had a ready answer. “Chommy, what do you think?”

~Book 4, Falcon in the Barn (coming spring 2015)

My Year of Living Deliberately

I don’t have enough time. Or money. Or control of my life.
And I’ve realized that’s all my fault.

For quite some time I’ve been living in survival mode. I think we all hit that sometimes, when we’re just holding on, trying to keep lives and spouses and children together, barely squeaking by month-to-month, existing with an underlying anxiousness that at any moment, something may fly off and send the precarious balance of our lives in a tailspin.

I’ve also realized that’s a stupid way to live, and I can actually do something about it.

I’ve realized I can live Deliberately. (Yes, with a capital D.)

Some weeks ago I read these words by Quentin L. Cook, and apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

We need to recognize that there is a seriousness of purpose that must undergird our approach to life and all our choices. Distractions and rationalizations limit our progress.

This has become my mantra for 2015.

My life is more than halfway over.
At age 45, I suppose I’ve hit some kind of midlife crisis.
Where I work I see many people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and I’ve noticed two different groups.

 One group is always in survival mode, and rationalizing that way of life. “I can’t lose weight. I can’t be better. I’ve always had bad genes. I’m going back to the doctor for another prescription. I need more help. ” They whine, they complain, and they age rapidly.

The second group—and I work directly with several in this group—are living Deliberately. “I’ve given up sugar and soda, and I feel so much better. I’m exercising more now than ever. Yes, I have some aches and pains, but that’s not going to stop me from working today. I’ve got babysitting my great-grandkids today after work.” They smile, they tackle their challenges, and they’re aging hardly at all.

In Falcon in the Barn (yes, it’s still on track to come out in early spring!) Perrin is thrown into a level of depression he’s never before encountered. He no longer acts, but is acted upon. Not too give too much away, he becomes a shadow of the man he used to be, and he hates it.

At some point in editing those chapters, I realized I had fallen into the same slump as Perrin, frustrated with my feeble attempts to reduce our debt, to improve our home, to make some progress in my life. Nothing was happening as I wished, because I was letting our circumstances work on me, instead of the other way around.

I’ve observed that successful people have Deliberateness in their lives, a seriousness of purpose, an attitude of I refuse to be the victim. As Cook said, 

My concern is not only about the big tipping-point decisions but also the middle ground—the workaday world and seemingly ordinary decisions where we spend most of our time. In these areas, we need to emphasize moderation, balance, and especially wisdom. It is important to rise above rationalizations and make the best choices.

So, tired of limping along, I have decided 2015 will be my year of Deliberateness—my year of making every choice one of careful examination, and wasting nothing. I’ve distinctly felt God nudging me in this direction for the past few weeks, and I’ve learned that it’s never a good idea to ignore the promptings from the Almighty. And to hold myself accountable (because accountability is the essence of life) I’m proclaiming my goals here.

First, I’m Deliberately trying to write neater, which may not sound like much, but I haven’t been able to decipher my own penmanship for a decade now. I pulled out a leather journal given to me eight years ago which I never before dared to use, bought myself a mechanical pencil, and have already filled three pages with completely legible writing.
I had no idea I was capable of that.

Second, I’m Deliberately eating better. I have issues with gluten, and at Thanksgiving realized I needed to limit my diet again. It was either my brain, or my bread. Since I’m a bit on the zombie side, I decided BRAINS! I Deliberately chose better foods, tried some vegan dishes, and limited my intake of sweets, all in an effort to improve my health.

Something shocking happened. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s I LOST 8 pounds! The last time I lost weight over the holidays, I had to give birth to a baby. Eating healthier was SO much easier. I’ve discovered that I like cilantro, brown rice, and quinoa. (I even know how to pronounce quinoa properly, too.) At this rate, I might actually become the weight I’m supposed to be by the end of summer.
I had no idea I could do that.

Third, I’m Deliberately reducing my time in frivolousness. That means that although I’m a reading junking, I’m refusing to read every little post, link, or meme on Facebook, and I will no longer waste time on silly quizzes that tell me the color of my wind (I’m suspecting it’s brown).
Before I started writing my book series, I gave up watching TV (never miss it), gave up my magazine subscriptions (never miss those, either) and deleted Scrabble and Free Cell from my computer (the only games I ever played). Suddenly, I had enough time to pursue my real goals. I Deliberately follow only two blogs, and when I go to Pinterest, I’ve vowed it will now be ONLY to find a new vegan recipe.

I’m also now writing a tongue-in-cheek pregnancy and baby care book, and reducing my dawdling on Facebook and Pinterest gives me the time to do that as well.
I didn’t realize such a small change could make such a big difference.

I love how Cook puts this:

Sometimes it feels like we are drowning in frivolous foolishness, nonsensical noise, and continuous contention. When we turn down the volume and examine the substance, there is very little that will assist us in our eternal quest toward righteous goals. One father wisely responds to his children with their numerous requests to participate in these distractions. He simply asks them, “Will this make you a better person?”

I desperately want to be a better person.

So I’m also Deliberately going to bed earlier and Deliberately getting up the first time my alarm blares.

I’m Deliberately scheduling time to write and study, and I’m Deliberately watching my bank account every day. I will Deliberately pay an extra $5 here and there to chip away at the debt that plagues us, and will keep track to prove to myself that every little bit really does help. I may be chipping away at an iceberg with a butter knife, but it’s better than pretending that iceberg isn’t about to engulf me.

Yeah, that’s a big list. I’m going to fail at all of those points at some time or another, but so what? I’ll Deliberately begin again. And again. And again. Because at some point when I was writing about Perrin’s struggles (don’t worry—no spoilers here) I realized that if he could make some changes, certainly I could as well.

Because I’m running out of life.
I’ve got less than half of it left, and I want to be healthy enough to play with my three-year-old’s children when he eventually has them.
I want to be mentally, physically, and spiritually strong enough to help all of my nine children when they need it.
I want to write another dozen books.
I want to work long enough to drag us completely out of debt.
I want to be the one pushing that friend’s wheelchair in thirty-five years, not the one riding in it.
I want to look back on my life with few regrets, and I want to feel that I took charge of my circumstances, and lived a Deliberately full life.

When Perrin woke up, he wanted that morning to be significant, to be the day he was truly a new man. He could no longer allow himself to be consumed by himself. There were too many other people needing him, and he could no longer remain indulgently weak. . . .
What was his goal today? Not to be the kind of man the world wanted, but to be the kind of leader the Creator wanted him to be. 

~Falcon in the Barn