What’s a Good Question?

I’ve already linked to this post on my Delicious account (you can see the latest five links in the sidebar, or follow the Twitter account where I post my links). However, as it is such a superb post, I wanted to recommend it here. Within it, Fred Sanders discusses how to ask a good question and lists a number of dichotomies that can help us to do just that. Here are a few:

Low level questions only require students to repeat information, perhaps to rephrase it. But High level questions require analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of the information (I’m using “low” and “high” loosely, but see Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Objectivesfor a widespread definition).

Information retrieval questions get short, factual answers (“Who is Athena’s mother?”). Information evaluation questions presuppose information retrieval, and usually get the short, factual answer thrown in as the student hurries on to the evaluative task (“Is Athena like her mother?”). Info-retrieval questions are usually best used in a series that are leading somewhere.

Convergent questions imply one right answer (“What is the main idea of this book?”); Divergent questions suggest a range of possibilities (“What are some of the most important things in this book?”).

Unstructured questions do not indicate what form the answer should take (“What did you think of Paradise Lost?”); Structured questions dictate the right form of response (“What is a new idea you got from Milton?” “What makes you mad in Paradise Lost?”)

Multiple questions offer many questions at once, so the real question is “Which of my questions do you want to use?” (“Why does God choose certain people for his purposes?Was he not dealing with individuals before Genesis 11? What’s special about Abraham?Does the text say why Abraham was chosen by God?”) Singular questions present a sheer cliff by comparison (“Why did God choose Abraham?”). Singular questions usually produce some silence from students. Multiple questions are a way for the tutor to fill up gaps in the conversation, to seed the clouds, and to check several prospects at once.

These are just the first few. Take the time to read the rest of his post, especially if you are an educator. It is exceptionally helpful.

Asking a good question is an underappreciated skill. As we so often take our questions for granted, we are unaware of how the questions that we ask shape our thought. The art of asking good questions demands deep and sustained attentiveness to the reality that we are questioning. While the wrong question forces reality into an obscuring framework, the right question can beautifully unfold it.

Several years ago, I consciously changed the way that I approached Scripture. In my earlier approach, I had brought what I presumed to be natural questions to the text and had expected the text to answer them. I stopped doing this and started to practice attentiveness to the text instead. Rather than just looking to the Scriptures for the answers to my questions, I began also to look to the Scriptures for the questions that I should be asking. One of the first things that dawned upon my awareness as I took this approach was just how bad, misleading, and wrong many of the questions I had previously depended upon were.

A good exercise to stop us from taking our questions for granted is to devote an hour to thinking about the best questions that arise from a particular biblical text. This exercise requires a very different kind of attentiveness to the text than answer-based study does.

I’ve written on the subject of questioning here, among other places. I would also recommend my friend Matt Lee Anderson’s book, The End of Our Exploring.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Links, Quotations, The Blogosphere, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What’s a Good Question?

  1. Bronwyn Lea says:

    Spending sufficient time in a text to see what questions arise from it is, I think, one of the biggest things which makes preaching penetrative and zingy rather than being merely “good” or acceptable. I long for preaching which makes me ask better questions, and I know it can only come from a teacher who has been taught by the Scripture to ask better questions themselves, Thanks for a good reminder.

  2. whitefrozen says:

    Could you give an example of what it was about the questions you depended on that was so wrong, misleading, etc? Or was it the simple fact that you were *bringing* questions to the text?

    • Not just the fact that I was bringing questions to the text. For quite some time, especially as a teen, my focus was upon questions designed to serve my individual spiritual life. I was looking for personal ‘promise texts’ and the like and, when you do that, most of the text is ignored in the process. A question such as ‘How does this help me to love Jesus more?’ despite being very well-meaning, is generally a bad and limiting question to ask, one that skews our reading in unhelpful ways. Of course, studying the Scriptures well will lead us to love Jesus more, but that question isn’t the one to start with.

      A good example of what I am cautioning against comes from a recent Bible study I took part in. Every week’s study was framed by the following questions:

      1. What are we learning about Jesus?
      2. What does this teach us about how to gain eternal life?
      3. What does this teach us about who gets eternal life?
      4. How does this make us love Jesus more?
      5. How does this motivate us to speak of Jesus to our friends?
      6. What questions would your non-Christian friends have from this passage?

      I think that the problems with such questions framing all of our study of Scripture should be quite obvious.

      The practice of bringing questions to the text is not necessarily problematic, provided that we are constantly also alert to the ways that the text is calling those questions into question and providing us with the means to arrive at better ones.

  3. Paul Baxter says:

    A few thoughts.

    1. The best succinct advice I ever received about teaching was this: “Never play ‘guess what the teacher is thinking.’ If you want to make a point to your students, make the point. If you want to ask questions, make them so that students can decide how to answer them.”

    When I first heard that, I immediately recognized that I had been through many Sunday School lessons which played the “guess what the teacher is thinking” game, and that I had done it myself to others, probably just by unconscious imitation. The other thing I realized was that it is a very frustrating or annoying device from the perspective of students.

    I suppose under the taxonomy offered above this would be a particular type of convergent question.

    2. I think if one is teaching (or even if one is not), it is always wise to consider what the purpose is in asking questions and what wording is most likely to bring that purpose about. Questions can be VERY powerful rhetorical devices and it is very easy for a badly thought out question to yield unwanted results. If you are teaching and you would like to have lots of group discussion, then questions should be phrased (and framed) in certain ways. If you are preaching (or writing), then rhetorical questions become an option, as you may just be wishing to make a point rather than encouraging discussion.

    3. I was taught by a friend a very simple method of leading small group Bible studies based on asking three questions.
    First you ask everyone to read the passage silently, twice (so that everyone gets to let the words sink in a bit). Then you ask:
    What do you like about this passage, or what stands out to you?
    What does this passage tell us about God?
    Assuming this passage is true, how might it affect our lives?

    Obviously you leave time for discussion after each question. I’ve used this many times. It has the wonderful advantage of not requiring preparation time. It also works quite well with non-believers. Everyone is able to (and encouraged to) participate at each point. It is, perhaps, not equally suited to every potion of scripture, but I’ve been surprised at how often it has led to fruitful discussion.

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