I have given this the subtitle “This is not a test,” because the way you structure questions for a test should be radically different than how you structure them for a discussion class. Most of us have taken multiple-choice tests — students often call the “multiple guess” — in which we discover that the correct answer to one item is found in the question about another item. In a test, this is a very poor question.
The purpose of the test is to find out what the student knows, and that is contaminated if you accidentally or inadvertently give them some of the answers. But the purpose of discussion of the class is not to find out simply what they know, but to help the student find his or her way to discovery and understanding.Those are quite different purposes, and they require quite different types of questions.
Let me clear one thing up at the start: Of all the questions commonly asked in Bible class and from the pulpit the worst is “What?” I hear this all the time, it grates on my nerves. It takes many forms. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of WHAT?” “Sanctification is the work of WHAT?” “In Revelation chapter 1, John’s sees Jesus standing among WHAT?”
It’s a terrible question because 1),The answer is either blindingly obvious, or totally obscure. 2) it’s coercive and manipulative. 3) It’s lazy on the part of the questioner. 4), it is the verbal equivalent of the fill-in-the-blanks question. And most important of all, 5), it makes the atmosphere unsafe.
Why would I say such a thing? Because if you speak up and get it wrong, it is publicly obvious you got the wrong answer. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and that makes it less likely that they will participate freely.
Asking good questions in a guided discussion is both an art and a science. What is true of the lesson in general is true of the individual question or questioning process: begin with the end in view. In other words, when formulating questions for a guided discussion class, you start by deciding what is the answer you were looking for.
We already said that you should have identified the main theme of your lesson, no more than five main points, and for each of those main points no more than five sub points. Most of the time, this will result in three main points, with three or four sub points each. So were looking at something like a total of 12 to 15 questions to get you where you’re going.
The purpose of these questions is not merely to elicit answers, not merely to reveal information. The purpose of these questions is to guide the class through the process of studying Scripture. All teaching is modeling the process. Sometimes the process is learning a technique; learning how to knead dough, and bake bread, for example. Or how to apply stain to wood, how to throw football, how to fit a sleeve into a shirt when sewing — you get the idea. In our case, you are modeling the process of how to study Scripture. How to read the Bible in a way that is respectful of the text and builds faith.
Modeling the process of how to study Scripture does not mean coming up with exactly the same answers you did. Some of the most rewarding times in a guided discussion class are when the learners follow a healthy process and discover something that the teacher had missed. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that understanding a good process for studying Scripture is more important than the transmission of information.
None of us is infallible. Sometimes the answers we find are influenced by culture, lack of information and knowledge, and our own biases. If we want our students to grow spiritually, to grow in faith, then they will naturally sometimes come to different conclusions – and sometimes those conclusions we will be closer to correct that our own.
I use the term, “closer to correct,” because I am mindful of 1 Corinthians 13:9, “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.” None of us possesses absolute knowledge, and thank God for that. Eternity is a long time, and either we will keep growing in our knowledge and understanding of God, or we will soon get bored.
For a test, questions should be structured so that they contain as few extraneous clues to the answer as possible. For a discussion class, questions should be structured in exactly the opposite way — there should be clues and cues to the right answer. The idea is to make it easier for the learner to find the correct answer. Once again, we’re not trying to find out what they know, but we are trying to help them discover important themes and ideas in the lesson.
And it’s far less important to formulate a, “perfect” question. There is no such thing. Rather, in a guided discussion class, the teacher wants to ask a series of similar and closely related questions which lead the learner to the answer. And finally, do not insist on a precisely correct answer in every case.
Let’s take an example from the recent lessons on Revelation. An important theme in the book of Revelation is that the Old Testament provides the key to unlocking the symbols within the book of Revelation.
So when we come to the sea beast in chapter 13, which (verse two), “resembled a leopard, but had the feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion,” we might ask, after reading that verse, “Is there somewhere in the Old Testament where we can find a leopard, a bear, and a lion together in one passage?” After a short pause with no response, ask “Perhaps in an other symbolic prophecy?” Pausing once again. “Maybe an apocalyptic book, like Revelation, with lots of visions about the future?” “Maybe the book of Daniel?”
By this time someone will have brought up the vision in Daniel 7, the vision of the of the four beasts, of which three are a lion, a bear, and a leopard. At this point you could say, “So there are parts of these beasts which combine to make the sea beast in Revelation 13, right?”
This questioning process slowly narrowed the focus, each question giving another cue or cues to the correct answer. At the same time, these questions model the thought process that goes into interpreting the symbol. The teacher is accomplishing two tasks at once: making it progressively easier to come up with the answer, and thus safer for the learner, and leading all the learners through the process of interpretation.
We will develop this process further in the next installment.