Asking Questions to Get Beneath the Surface
This summer, my biggest project was scraping and painting the deck at my lake house. I’m always tempted to skip the scraping part and get right into painting. However, as we all know, it is crucial to strip away what’s on the surface to get to what’s deeper: the original wood.
When we teach, we can be tempted to rush past an important step that helps us get beneath the surface, and that is asking questions. It’s also important to know that, just as there are different size scrapers for different jobs, there are also different kinds of questions that achieve different things. Basically, there are four categories of questions (I call them the “Four I’s”) at our disposal:
- Informational—These questions skim the surface and are designed to recall information. For example, “What are the two main parts of the Mass?” (Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist)
- Implicational—These questions begin to take us beneath the surface in search of significance. For example, “What are some of the ways that the Mass can bring us closer to God?”
- Individual—These questions delve into thoughts, opinions, and feelings. For example, “What is Jesus saying to you in this Sunday’s Gospel?”
- Ideological—These questions invite responders to speculate and to grapple with deep issues. For example, “What do you think the world would look like if everyone lived as Jesus suggests in this Sunday’s Gospel?”
In addition to knowing what tools are at your disposal, it’s always good to know proper technique. I can have a great scraper in my hand, but if I don’t know how to use it (e.g. what angle to hold it at), it won’t be effective. Let’s take a look at nine tips for asking questions effectively in our lessons.
Tips for Asking Questions
- Phrase your questions in a simple, straightforward way. Avoid complicated questions that turn and twist so much that participants can’t figure out what you’re really looking for. Keep the question short and to the point.
- Keep your questions open-ended. Avoid asking questions that will result in a yes or no response. An open-ended question is one that invites the participants to dig a little deeper and express some thoughts, insights, and opinions of their own. For example, instead of asking, “Did Jesus ever show any feelings or emotions?” you would ask, “When were some times that Jesus showed some feelings or emotions?”
- Don’t answer your own questions. All too often, catechists panic when no one volunteers to answer a question. To save face, they answer the question themselves. When you ask a question, you have placed the focus on the participants. Keep it there. Be patient. Give the young people time to think. If they’re having trouble answering, try rephrasing the question.
- Repeat your question. Asking a question once is never enough. Get in the habit of asking a question, pausing, and then asking the question again in exactly the same way. Do this even if a hand shoots up after the first time. By pausing and repeating the question, you give children that may be slower to respond an opportunity to jump in.
- As you await an answer, move around the room and make eye contact. As you ask and repeat a question, move around the room and make eye contact with participants. This is a way of communicating to them that you expect an answer and will patiently wait until you get one.
- Ask a question of the whole group first. Whenever you ask a question, direct it to the whole group first. If you single out one young person, the rest of the group will relax, thinking that they’re off the hook. Occasionally you may need to single out someone whose attention is wavering, but the whole group should have the opportunity to respond.
- Plan your questions ahead of time. Your catechist manual most likely offers questions for discussion. Look these over ahead of time to make sure they will serve your purposes. Don’t hesitate to prepare additional questions. Write out your questions ahead of time so that you don’t go blank when you need them. Shorten and rephrase them until you feel they will achieve their goals most effectively.
- Give feedback to participants when they respond to questions. If someone answers a question and you do not acknowledge the answer, he or she may feel ignored or unappreciated. Learners participate more if they feel that their contributions are appreciated. Be sure to respond, “That’s excellent,” or, “You make a very good point.” Even if a participant answers incorrectly, do not embarrass him or her by saying, “No, you’re wrong.” Instead, say something like, “Nice try; let’s see if someone can help you.”
- Lead discussions. Asking questions in your sessions is part of the larger context of leading discussions. Discussions are an important means of assessing participants’ understanding of a topic. Discussions promote active engagement in learning and allow participants an opportunity to express themselves.
What other advice would you add?
Find more catechetical tips, techniques, methodologies, and advice in The Catechist’s Toolbox.