Jeremy Pettitt on Communication and Culture

Ask Students Questions

Posted on February 16, 2015


When I engage with students, I usually ask a lot of questions. I do this because I think the questions are usually more important than the answers. And yet I regularly hear leaders say that the person who gives (read “controls”) the answers is “in charge”. They think that unless the student hears the “correct” answer delivered the “correct” way, then these young people will be hopelessly lost in a world of lies, unable to ever escape. They say things like, “I need to communicate the truth to them or they will never know”. While I do not want to diminish the value of good teaching, I could not disagree more.

From my perspective, the person who asks the questions is the one in charge. Suppose I ask you the question: “What is your favorite pie?” Now you may respond with any number of answers like “apple pie” or “pumpkin pie” (but we all know the right answer is French Silk ;-). But you could not answer “dinosaurs” or “socks” or “iPhone”. Why? Because the all important options for your answer have already been determined by my question.

My question has created the boundaries that your answers now have to play inside.

Last fall, I was teaching a group of middle school students. I told them to pretend that I was from another planet (not really a stretch ;-) and I had never heard of this word “God”. Allowing them to use their mobile devices, I asked them to describe this “God” to me. We filled a huge whiteboard with their answers, full of nouns and adjectives describing God. When they finished, I told them that they would all have to agree to a definition since there were so many words on the board. On their own, without any help or direction from me as to the “right answer”, they came up with this statement: “God is a loving Father and an all powerful Creator”. I then asked them if they had ever read the Apostles’ Creed and they ALL said “NO”. I had them look it up on their devices and read it out loud together. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…” Their jaws dropped. Without “correct answers” from a grown up, these students had rewritten the Apostles’ Creed! Even the other leaders were blown away!

If you begin to ask good questions of your students and allow them to explore the answers in the space you have created, you will find they are far more engaged than if you simply stand in front of them and spoon feed them the answers.

Here are some specific suggestions that should help:

  • You may need to give them access to the Internet to help gather information.
  • You may have to allow them time to really wrestle with the question, refusing to allow them to settle for an easy answer.
  • You may need to ask them to share their answers with the group and record them on a board or slide.
  • You may have to ask further questions to guide them back toward the appropriate space if they get sidetracked.

I understand that you may be initially skeptical about this process of asking questions instead of just giving them answers. Just try it a few times and see how it goes.

Based on my experience, students will eventually thank you for the opportunity to participate in their learning process because sadly many adults don’t trust them enough to ever give them the chance.

To get started, ask yourself:

  • What do I want my students to learn?
  • What questions do I need to ask them in order to create the space for them to play in?
  • What difference will it make if they discover the answer for themselves, rather than having me just give it to them?


I would love to hear about your experiences and/or challenges with this exercise. Leave a comment or question for me and I will respond as soon as I can.



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