Stirring Things Up with Questions

Sabbath School members are capable of far deeper thinking than the average teacher has expected of us. Ellen White affirms us that “every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator -- individuality, power to think and to do” (Education, p. 17). One of the greatest privileges of the Sabbath School teacher is to discover ways to create a thinking atmosphere in every class.

Research in education indicates that training teachers in questioning techniques can enhance learning skills in their students by encouraging their thinking from literal repetition of facts into deeper exploration through comprehension, application, and inferential reasoning.

Here are samples of some particular types of questions:

Fact: “What did Goldilocks do when she got to the three bears’ house?”

Comprehension: “Why did Goldilocks like the little bear’s chair best?”

Application: “If Goldilocks had come into your house, what are some of the things she might have used?”

Analysis: “How can we tell which things belong to each bear?”

Synthesis: “How might the story be different if Goldilocks had visited three astronauts?”

Evaluation: “Do you think Goldilocks had a right to do what she did? Why or why not?”

Almost 90 percent of teachers’ questions come from the first two categories, which require little, if any, higher-order thinking. Research on learning has established that students understand best, remember ideas most effectively, and think most incisively when they feel personally responsible for getting meaning out of what they are learning. Jesus demonstrated this principle when He questioned His listeners. His purpose was not to create an arsenal of facts, but to make them think. To this day followers contemplate and ponder Jesus’ teachings.

Look at these examples from the book of Matthew:

  • “ ‘Why do you worry about clothes?’ ” (6:28, NKJV).
  • “ ‘Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?’ ” (7:3, NKJV).
  • “ ‘Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you,” or to say, “Arise and walk” ’? ” (9:5, NKJV).
  • “ ‘Why did you doubt?’ ” (14:31, NKJV).
  • “ ‘What do you think about the Christ?’ ” (22:42, NKJV).

Christian author Dorothy Jean Furnish says, “Avoid questions that require predetermined answers. This practice results eventually in hypocrisy on the part of children because they tell us what they think we want to hear.”* And adult Sabbath School members, like children, are predisposed to recite facts from memory rather than from understanding.

In Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church: And How to Fix It, Thom and Joani Schultz give strategies that you can implement right away to encourage thinking in your Sabbath School class:

1. Ask open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions are associated with lower-order thinking— memory, recall of facts, typically with only one right answer. Example: “Where was Jesus born?” When someone gives the one common answer, the rest of the class remains uninvolved.

Open-ended questions require students to think. Everyone can be involved in the process -- to think, to listen, to contribute their own ideas.


  • Why do you think God allowed Jesus, His only Son, to be born in a stable?
  • If Jesus were born today, what kind of place would God choose for Jesus’ birth?
  • If today an unwed teenage girl gave birth to a boy in an alley, what would it take for you or anybody to believe he was the Messiah, the Son of God?

2. Ask follow-up questions. Today’s environment conditions learners to give pat answers. Pat answers do not require thinking. Sabbath School teachers do not have to settle for no-brain responses. Encourage thinking by asking follow-up questions such as:

  • What do you mean by . . . ?
  • What reasons do you have . . . ?
  • How did you decide . . .?
  • Tell me more.

3. Ask extension questions. The common response from a generation taught not to think is “I don’t know.” But we don’t have to settle for that. We can ask extension questions. Here are some samples:

  • If you did know, what would you say?
  • Ask me a question that will help you understand.
  • Pretend you do know -- make something up.

4. Wait for students’ answers. Teachers and students dread silence. They’re more comfortable with hustle and bustle. The average teacher waits about one second before panicking. The typical response is to give away an answer, rephrase the question, or scold the class.

Thinking takes time. If you ask a good question, allow the time necessary for thinking to germinate. The minimum is five to 10 seconds.

5. Don’t evaluate responses. This one is tough. We naturally want to affirm everyone and habitually do so in teaching. We love to say Good answer! Right! Great! But these responses shut down the rest of the class by signaling that the right answer has already been given. Instead, use nonjudgmental responses: Thank you. Uh-huh. These acknowledge that students have been heard, without passing judgment or shutting down the thinking of other people.

6. Encourage students’ questions. A sure sign that thinking is taking place is when students begin to ask the questions. Invite questions, then resist the temptation to provide instant pat answers. Teachers must stop merely dispensing information. They must listen and encourage questions.

*Dorothy Jean Furnish, Experiencing the Bible With Children (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 124.

W. Eugene Brewer
© 2006 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists