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How Do I Deal With Bad Answers

Likely you’ve experienced it. You’ve asked a question, and
the answer which has come back at you is . . .  well . . . really bad. How does a teacher
handle that situation?

Before we begin, let’s realize one thing: The teacher of the
Word doesn’t have to feel conscience-bound to confront or correct every wrong
answer. God urges us to do our teaching “gently” (2 Tim 2:25). On occasion,
that may mean simply ignoring a wrong answer and moving forward into the
truths. Think of the third-grade science instructor who likely hears all sorts
of incorrect answers but doesn’t bother to confront most of them, because he/she
knows that over the course of time, those false ideas will gradually be
replaced with correct understanding. So please don’t feel guilty if at times
you don’t address an incorrect thought. You may be doing the “gentle” thing
with the soul whom you’re shepherding.

Jesus himself did that with his disciples in Acts chapter 1.
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” they
asked. And Jesus answer? He basically sidesteps it! “You don’t need to know the
times or dates; you’ll receive power.” He could have said, “Guys, I’m NOT here
to set up an earthly kingdom!” He didn’t. He gently sidestepped their error and
pointed them to truth. Often you can do the same.



Yes, dealing with bad answers (or bad statements) is still
an issue, so let’s discuss. Please recognize that we’ll be discussing this in
regard to adult Bible study, not grade school confirmation class. Adults, in
general, hate to be embarrassed. So learning to handle poor answers is a
particularly valuable skill in teaching adults.

Secondly, we need to realize that there is no “right” answer
to this question. We will give some suggestions, but much will depend on the
situation. The teacher will want to recognize …

  • Who gave the answer (Do they have an axe to
    grind? Was it a legitimately poor answer?)
  • Some possible reasons they may have given the
    answer (Were they from a different religious background previously? Has this
    been a point of confusion in the congregation or the local culture?)
  • The other people who are in the room (Will they
    recognize the wrongness immediately, or will they be confused by it, or maybe
    even offended by it?)

Only the person onsite can develop a feel for those things.
So please consider the rest of the article to be some ideas to think about,
rather than a “road-map to success.”

Let’s consider a situation in which the Bible study leader
asked, “How does faith happen?” The answer given is “Faith happens when a person
decides to believe in Jesus as their Savior.” Yep, that’s a bad answer. What
can we do with it?

First Question: Can I
salvage the answer?

One way in which a poor answer can be dealt with is to try
to salvage it. In other words, instead of focusing on what’s wrong with
the answer, try to pull out something that is correct, and focus there.  

In our example, it is true that faith “believes in Jesus as
the Savior.” So could the leader salvage the answer? Perhaps if he were to say,
“I want to focus on the last part of your answer in which you talked about how
faith trusts that Jesus is the Savior. Yes, that’s correct, that faith focuses
on Jesus and his work of salvation.” Yes, that’s less than complete. That’s
probably what needs to happen at this point.

Notice the teacher has focused on the part of the answer that
is true without dealing with the falsehood. Will the rest of the class
catch the nuance? Perhaps, perhaps not. Only the local leader can attempt to
gauge that from his knowledge of his people.

When might I take this tactic? I might try this when I don’t
want the class to get sidetracked by the false part of the answer. Sometimes
the leader has to make a judgment call that it’s better to sort of sidestep the
poor part of the answer in order to keep the lesson moving in a valuable
direction.

Second Question: Can
I empathize with the answer and the answerer, while also making clear
that the answer is not correct?

In our example, perhaps the leader could say this, “You
know, that’s really a popular way to say it, particularly in 21st-century
America. And so I totally understand where that answer came from! But, you and
I would want to say it differently. And it’s super valuable for us to spend
some time on this, so that we can become even more clear about this, so thank
you for bringing this to the table! Okay, let’s think for a moment. How might
we say it differently?” Then the leader can let someone else in the class–or
even that same person if they wish–try to give a more accurate answer.)

Notice what has happened:

  • With the empathizing (“That’s really a popular
    way to say it.”  “I understand.”), you’re
    letting the person know that he’s not an idiot.
  • By saying this is a really important issue, and
    thanking him for bringing it up, he may feel “good” about the answer (even as
    you are indicating that it’s wrong!).

When might I use this approach? I might use this when I know
that the person who gave the weak answer is a confident person who seems to
trust me. I might use this approach when I have an idea that several others in
the class might have said something very similar and might even say so at this
point. In fact, you could even ask, “I’d guess some of the rest of us might
have answered the same way. Is that accurate?” I might also use this approach
if the person who gave the answer was new to the faith, and knew he had a lot
yet to learn.

I’d be less likely to use this approach if the person who
gave that answer wasn’t a confident person, or I wasn’t sure if they trusted me
as the teacher.

Third Question: Should
I confront the incorrect answer?

Sometimes a wrong answer just has to be “called out.” When
would I do that?

  • If the answer will be so confusing that it will
    lead others astray.
  • If it’s a subject matter which you have been
    aggressively teaching, and so by now the learners should know it. This may be
    more applicable to confirmation teaching than adult teaching.

In our example, if I’m teaching a group of people who have
had previous background in the Baptist church or some other Arminian church, I
might need to confront the idea that “a person decides to believe,” lest the
entire class becomes confused. Yet even in this scenario, I want to do it
gently. So perhaps I say, “That’s not quite it. Remember, while some churches
teach that a person has to decide to believe in Jesus, that’s not what the
Bible teaches. Let’s review; what does the Bible teach about this?” And by the
way, you might even try to smile while you’re doing this. That communicates
that you’re not angry with your people; you’re simply wanting them to learn.

If you have a really good relationship with the person who’s
given that answer, you might have some fun with it, saying with a smile, “Come
on, John! I think you said that just to mess with me! Is that what’s
happening?” And then to the class, say,  “Okay, let’s try it again. What’s a better way
to say it?” Obviously you should only try that if you’re quite confident about
the relationship you have with the person who’s given the poor answer.

Those are some ideas for dealing with poor answers (or poor
statements).

But we also should ask, is there a way to avoid this
situation completely? And yes, often that’s possible. Let’s explore.

How can I avoid the situation altogether, or set up a
healthy way to address incorrect answers?

As we covered this to some extent in the previous
Teach the Word
, we’ll be brief. Here are several suggestions for avoiding
the situation or setting it up to be handled well. 

  1. Anticipate the wrong answer, and deal with it
    in the question.
    With our example, don’t ask, “How does faith happen?”
    Instead ask, “Some teach that a person needs to decide to believe in Jesus as
    their Savior. That’s not correct. What is a proper way to describe how faith
    happens?” That will help your people.
  2. Instead of asking a question that has a
    “right” answer, ask an open question.
    Using our example, instead of asking,
    “How does faith happen,” ask something like, “Some people think that faith
    happens when a person makes the decision to believe. That’s not true, and it’s
    dangerous. Decide on two to three reasons why that idea is so dangerous.” Or,
    “The way faith happens is that God uses the Word and/or the Sacraments to
    miraculously bring us to faith. For what reasons are you so thankful that this
    is God’s work?” That approach allows your people to give multiple “right”
    answers with far less danger of being inaccurate, while at the same time
    cementing the truths. 
  3. Tell people that the question you’re asking
    is hard, so we may not get the correct answer right away.
    By giving that
    caveat, if you then have to say, “No, that’s not it,” you’ve given your people
    an “out.” And you can even repeat, “Like I said, this is hard, so I’m not
    surprised that we’re wrestling with it a bit.”

Finally, dealing with wrong answers is more of an art than a
science. As mentioned at the beginning, please view all of the above as
suggestions that might be helpful, not as a “road map for success.” But dealing
with wrong answers or statements is a reality of teaching. It’s well worth it
for us to work at becoming better at doing so.

Blessings on your teaching!

Professor Thomas Kock

Next time: What is group work, and how can I use it wisely?