Responding to Questions

(NOTE: This is the latest post from my main blog, "Storms are Brewin in My Eyes". Like many others in Outer Blogness, I have been gradually moving away from a focus on Mormon-specific themes. For those interested in more posts like this, I invite you to check in at my other blog from time to time since that's where I'm doing most of my posting these days.)

One of my favorite opportunities when I was LDS was that of teaching a Sunday School class especially for teachers - "Teaching: No Greater Call". The course, aimed to help instructors better understand and fulfill their opportunities to "teach", also helped awaken in me a passion for understanding teaching/learning that continues to this day (as a student of the psychology of learning).

I was especially intrigued by one of the lessons I taught in that course - the idea that a teacher should respond to questions asked by asking more questions. A good teacher, I learned, does not provide the answers - but rather supports students in discovering the answers for themselves.

I have found that approach helpful not only in classroom settings, but in my personal life. My first therapist, for example, consistently used this approach. She responded to my questions with answers about 1% of the time; the other 99% of the time she encouraged me to dig deeper and do the work to figure out my own thoughts and feelings. The result was a sense of empowerment. I thrilled at the opportunity to know myself and appreciated the responsibility that came with assuming ownership over my personal morality.

Recently I heard a story about which I've continued to reflect:
A child raised by a Catholic mother and a Protestant father was schooled in the Catholic tradition. One day in 2nd grade, her teacher (a nun) explained to the class that Protestants would not be going to Heaven. The child was understandably distraught, and ran home as quickly as possible at the end of the day. When she told her mother what had happened, she asked her mom if the nun was correct.

"What do you think?" the mother asked.

"I think she was wrong," the child said.

"Why do you think the nun would have said that?" the mother asked.

After thinking a bit, the child responded, "Because she doesn't know Father."

The mother hugged her child and said, "You're a very smart little girl. I'm proud of you."
How might her mother have responded? She could have said something like, "That's just the way things are," or "I don't understand everything, but I trust God will sort things out." But no - instead she took the opportunity first to encourage her child to look inward, and second to support her child in trusting her own intuition. What I find most interesting about the story is that the child grew up and chose to become a Catholic nun (Sister Joan Chittister). It seems to me that this kind of "trust your gut" response helped the girl to gain the confidence necessary to walk her own path within a wider realm of religious practice. From what I understand, Sister Chittister has been a great feminist leader who has done much good in and out of Catholicism, not afraid to trust her gut and push the boundaries.   

While our society tends to function with a top-down approach, I think a top-down approach in teaching can really miss the mark and deprive individuals of rich opportunities for growth and development. I think it is so important to teach children how to search and wrestle for answers rather than simply accept what is handed down from the top. Which is exactly the message of one of my favorite quotes:
"A fundamental change is required from teaching strategies in which authorities bring information and knowledge to students to strategies in which individuals are responsible for obtaining and shaping knowledge for themselves." -A Roadmap for Educational Technology, 2010
It is my hope and belief that as we engage children in searching for rather than knowing answers, they will be more likely to enjoy and take responsibility for their learning.

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