by Tom M., training resources director
The cartoon depicts a large rustic wagon with two men struggling to keep it moving, one man pulling and the other pushing. The cart has large square wheels. Its cargo … round wagon wheels. The caption reads, “We’ll never get anywhere if you keep asking questions!”
This not-so-subtle humor speaks volumes about how questions are often perceived by teachers in many educational settings. Questions are viewed as interruptions, stealing valuable time from the lecture. The perfunctory conclusion, “Are there any questions?” is usually followed by a few seconds of awkward silence before class is dismissed. Questions generated by the lecture have been buried under all the content.
“Any questions?” is usually followed by awkward silence before class is dismissed.
But “learning” is much more than simply listening to someone “telling.” The way people seek and gain deeper understanding is through asking and finding answers to questions — even if they are not sure what the questions are. Questions stimulate inquiry and discovery. Because of this, some even suggest there is no learning apart from questions.
The book of Job is full of questions from Job and his supposed friends, who try to ascertain the reason for Job’s calamities. When God responds, he does so with lots of questions. In his years of ministry, Jesus also asked questions, not because he needed the information, but in order to stimulate others to think or respond. Paul used numerous questions in his letters to catch the attention of the recipients and to solicit information.
The weight of biblical examples, years of field experience by Entrust staff and modern educational research provided the impetus for Entrust to change the wheels on the wagon. The old methods were inadequate, especially when we looked hard at the goal of true biblical transformation, not merely information transfer. Therefore, Entrust actively embraces a strategy of dialogical learning through facilitation in small groups. Let’s look at these three elements in reverse order.
Small groupsThe small group is an ideal setting for dialogue and interactive learning. Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” A key example of this is Jesus with his 12 disciples. Oh, to have been able to hear the interaction as they lived and walked and talked together over the brief years Jesus spent with them! Another example is Paul and the people who traveled and ministered with him. In addition to their broad ministries, Jesus and Paul chose to invest significant energy and time into preparing a few chosen men to move the training and discipling process forward after they left the scene. The process they chose was transferable because it involved a small group.
Facilitated discoveryThe facilitation method guides others in the process of discovery. It replaces the traditional teacher role with a catalytic role. In chemistry, a catalyst stimulates or hastens a chemical reaction. Likewise, the facilitator’s role in the small group is to ask questions to promote interaction between participants, rather than acting as the expert or authority. As participants seek to answer questions, they develop critical thinking skills and new insights. The process not only provides answers, but encourages real learning.
Dialogical learningDialogical learning is much more fun than listening to a monologue. Dialogue tends to stir a variety of emotional responses as people wrestle with the issues at hand. Sparks fly, laughter erupts, “Ah ha!” moments explode, wrinkled brows of uncertainty appear, tension is relaxed, perhaps tears well up … all stimulated by a good open question from the facilitator. As one person tries to express his thoughts, he may be quickly affirmed or politely challenged to explain. As resistance is softened and new insights are embraced, transformation gains a foothold as the Spirit of God continues to move.
The skill of learning to ask good open questions to encourage thinking takes time and practice. The way a question is constructed makes a big difference. Open questions are a doorway into conversation because they have more than one possible answer. Such questions invite the exploration of ideas and move people to consider other perspectives. This kind of question provides an opportunity to challenge participants to examine their own thoughts and reasoning in a safe context.
Unlike people, not all questions are created equal. Even skilled facilitators can revert to poorly worded questions if they have not thought about them ahead of time. In fact, spontaneous facilitator questions asked in a small group study tend to elicit simple “yes/no” or trite factual responses. One thoughtful question is worth dozens of inquisitive ones, because verbal activity doesn’t necessarily reflect thinking. The goal is not just conversation, but thinking and learning.
Learning new things is not automatic. Typically, a person needs to see a connection between what she already knows, or thinks she knows, to what is being learned. The stronger the link between the old and the new, the greater the retention of the new. Another way of saying this is, to get to point “C,” a person must have attained points “A” and “B” — moving from the known (attained) to the unknown (new). As the facilitator asks strategic open questions that stimulate group interaction, a logical, sequential process will unfold new levels of understanding for each participant.
Of course facilitation isn’t the only way to lead a small group, but it is a proven and effective way to promote individual growth and new insights leading to life transformation. This is Entrust’s goal. We know the process works.
If you haven’t already done so, perhaps it’s time for you, too, to consider changing the wheels on your wagon.
This article appears in the spring 2017 edition of Engage.