The Question of Questions
Posted by douglashunter on July 12, 2007
My participation in this blog has been marked by a closer examination of how I present lessons, my goals, and expectations when presenting a lesson. I have to say that in the past 6 months I’ve made significant changes to how I prepare and present lessons. In short the change can be described as a move away from a close analysis of the material, the reading of supporting scripture and the structure of the lesson to a concern for being able to ask good questions. It seems to me now that the single most powerful form of preparation I can do is to create good questions.
Questions, what and how to ask is an often discussed topic in pedagogical circles. Perhaps the most commonly cited description of questions and their purpose is Bloom’s Taxonomy that describes several types of questions in a range from lower to higher level thinking skills. In Brief the Taxonomy is as follows:
1) Knowledge- Recalling previously learned material such as definitions formulas etc.
In an educational setting knowledge questions might be like the following:
-What are the parts of an atom?
-What is the capital of Alaska?
-What is the definition of Epistemology?
In the church setting knowledge question may be like the following:
-Who is the current leader of the Church?
-What is the second article of Faith?
-What is the definition of repentance?
Such questions are designed to test the respondent’s ability to recall facts, they don’t require interpretation or understanding. For example one can state that Juno is the capital of Alaska without knowing anything about the city or where it is in Alaska.
2) Comprehension- These questions show how well a respondent understands the meaning of material either remembered or in review. Here are some examples from the SWK manual:
– Review Matthew 6:14-15 quoted by president Kimball on page 92. Why do you think we must forgive others in order to receive the Lord’s forgiveness?
– Review the story on pages 89-91. Why is it sometimes so difficult for people to forgive one another?
-Review the section beginning on page 105. In what ways can the lord help us withstand evil?
As you read President Kimball’s comparison between “blind obedience” and “faith obedience” what differences do you see?
Comprehension questions of this kind are more specifically called reading comprehension questions. They test the respondent’s ability to read a passage of text and extract specific information from it. It’s worth noting that these are by far the most common type of question found in the Church’s lesson manuals. In The SWK manual just about all the questions are reading comprehension question, with only a tiny number of application question thrown in.
3) Application- To answer such questions the respondent must be able to use information in a novel context to solve a problem or perform another task. These questions involve rules, principles formulas, concepts, procedures, etc.
Examples from the SWK manual:
-Read about the decision President Kimball had to make in March 1972 (pages 135,137) What gospel principles do you think apply when we are faced with difficult decisions?
-Ponder this statement: “Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god” (page 146). What are some false gods in the world today?
4) Analysis- Analysis questions require breaking material into its parts and dealing with the relationship between the parts.
-What economic factors are at work to keep home prices high in the Los Angeles area?
– What are the main Ideas that Barthes uses to develop his ideas on photography in Camera Lucida?
This type of question does require some independent work on the part of the respondent, they must be able to judge the importance of information, organize it and describe why it is important.
5) Synthesis- Putting parts together in a new way. Often times the respondent has access to a model which they can apply to a new situation. Examples:
-What procedures would you use in an experiment to test the caloric value of different foods?
6) Evaluation- In these types of questions the respondent must be able to apply a set of criteria to make a judgment. Aesthetic criticism can offer a number of examples of this kind of questions. As can economics and science. Examples:
– Does Hemingway use adjectives effectively to enhance his theme in The Old Man and the Sea?
– How well does the Stillman Diet meet the criteria for an ideal weight reduction plan?1
Bloom’s Taxonomy also describes lower and higher level questioning. Lower level questions deal with knowledge, comprehension and simple examples of application. Higher level questions require more complex analysis, independent thinking, synthesis and evaluation.
To be honest I think that Bloom’s taxonomy is only a starting point for us because it’s distinctions are based on how respondents utilizes discrete pieces of information. I think leading a discussion in a Church setting needs to be based on a number of additional variables. One way in which I do think the Taxonomy is useful is as a tool for evaluating the questions we create or the questions found in the church manuals. For example as I mentioned earlier the overwhelming majority of questions in the SWK manual (and many other church publications) are lower level reading comprehension questions. One can then ask why this would be the case. The first reason that comes to mind for me is that the stated purpose of the manuals is to keep the emphasis on the words and teaching of the presidents of the church. Reading comprehension questions are indeed one way to achieve this end.
The difficulty is that lower level questions often do not work well with adults, because adults perceive such questions as asking them to state the obvious, which is either a little embarrassing or feels unnecessary. I think many teachers can empathize with the experience of using a comprehension question and having it fall flat. So the second way that the Taxonomy might be of interest to us is that it may provide ideas of how to take lower level questions and turn them into higher level questions which often work better for adults. Consider the example I gave above:
- Review Matthew 6:14-15 quoted by president Kimball on page 92. Why do you think we must forgive others in order to receive the Lord’s forgiveness?
The quote from Matthew reads “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
The difficulty with the question for teaching adults is that it’s so pointed. It strongly implies a single correct answer and this answer is obvious due to the context “because if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven.”
Two ways to improve such a question for teaching adults would be to include a bit more scriptural context, read the verses before and or after the verse 14. And to ask a question that does not seek an obvious answer. It’s a common tactic to start a question with the obvious information and then move to a higher level. For example, one could reframe the issue as follows:
“So Matthew tells us that we can’t have forgiveness unless we forgive first. Intellectually I think we are all familiar with, and comfortable with that idea. Yet we still often have very real struggles with forgiving. Why might this be the case? What gets in the way of forgiveness? What are we holding onto when we are slow to forgive?”
I apologize for this very bland example. Putting aside its blandness, it has several positive features:
1) The information the lesson wants us to foreground is conveyed.
2) The question is raised from a lower level question to a higher level question that has a number of potential answers, and that often work better with adults.
3) The question personalizes the issue, moves it from the abstract to the concrete. It places emphasis on the participant’s own understanding of scripture and experience.
4) The way the question is asked implies that the participants have something unique to contribute to the discussion.
Granted this kind of questions has two risks in that the participants might not feel comfortable sharing their personal experience and the discussion may require some management on the part of the instructor to keep it on track. But it’s been my experience that the benefits of higher level questions far outweigh the risks.
Bloom’s Taxonomy is not the only way to evaluate questions but I think it’s a positive starting place to organize one’s thinking about how questions are structured and what they hope to achieve. There is a lot more to the question of questions and I hope to discuss some more interesting aspects of the issue in another post.
1- These last two questions were taken from the University of Illinois Center for Teaching Excellence’s web site. A Google search for “Bloom’s Taxonomy” will lead the curious to many sites that have various takes on the issues of questions.
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