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Avoid Fishing

Teach the WordRecently, a couple of college students were telling me how much they enjoyed a midweek Bible study offered at their school. “What do you like about it?” I asked. “The pastor really knows how to get us talking and thinking,” one answered. The other collegiate contrasted the midweek study with another they attend. “The other Bible study is good too, but he asks questions that make us guess at what he’s thinking.”

The second Bible study leader was engaging in what the Dialogue Education™ people call fishing. Fishing is when teachers ask a thought question that could be answered in a number of ways. They continue asking the question until they hear the “right” answer, the one that is locked away in their heads.

An example will show the effect. Let’s say we’re studying Mark 9:36,37.

“He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (NIV 2011)

Teacher: Why did Jesus take the little child in his arms?

Participant #1: Maybe Jesus saw the child was scared in the middle of all those men.

Teacher: Interesting thought, but that’s not what I have in mind.

Participant #2: I think he was giving the child a hug!

Teacher: Heh, heh. Cute. Any other tries?

Participant #3: Was it like demonstrating welcoming?

Teacher: Yes, that’s more like what I was looking for. Jesus takes this child into his arms and physically demonstrates that a Christian puts others first, even those who are the least important to the world.

What’s the effect of fishing like this? The last participant feels fine. He or she “won” the mind-reading contest this time. The other two participants might well feel dumb or insulted. Their answers were not wrong, but they were wrong in the eyes of this teacher.

Questions can profitably be used to focus attention on a key point. They can lead learners to find comparisons or evaluate thoughts. But questions (and mind reading) are terrible tools for communicating a thought. The teacher in the example had an interesting thought to share. How could he have shared that insight? Perhaps he could have just told the class his insight.

Or, even better, he could have allowed them to discover it (and other insights) by asking an open question like this:

Note that St. Mark says that Jesus took the child into his arms. The Greek word could as well be translated “he hugged him.” This is a detail not found in the other gospels. Break into groups of three. In your group’s opinion, why did Jesus take the child into his arms? Come back in five minutes and we’ll ask for one idea from each group.

The teacher then needs to be aware that the group will have insights which he didn’t have, which can be just as “right” as his own insight. That’s why this isn’t a fishing question, because it assumes multiple answers could be accurate.

This type of directed open question leads us into the topic of the next article in this series: “The Core Strategy of Dialogue Education: The Learning Task.” Until then, double-check your lesson plan and gut any fishing questions.

Video Extra: Teach the Word - Interview With Pastor Nitz, Part 2


This is the second article in a five-part series by Paul Nitz, a WELS pastor and missionary to Malawi. He teaches pedagogy at the Lutheran Bible Institute, the beginning level ministerial school that serves the Lutheran Church of Central Africa in Malawi and Zambia.