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Why Use Open Questions?

For what reasons
might an open question be so useful for when teaching adults?

The question above is an example of an “open question.” An
open question is a question for which there isn’t one correct answer. Or, to
say it a bit differently, an open question is one for which there could be several,
even many, “correct” answers. (We’ll give examples below.)

For what reasons are open questions so useful in the adult educator’s
toolbox? Below are three possible reasons:

  1. The open question is a far less “dangerous”
    question.
  2. The open question pushes the learners to more and deeper thinking.
  3. The open question may level the playing field
    between those people who have strong Biblical background and those whose
    background isn’t as strong.

Now, let’s break those down. (Note, all the examples used
below will be from a lesson on Luke 2:1-20.)



The open question is
a far less dangerous question.

In general, adults hate to be embarrassed. So, many adults
will shy away from answering questions that have clear right/wrong answers. If
you were to ask the closed question, “Where was Jesus born?” you have the
potential for adults to answer incorrectly. Now, you might think, “Come on.
That one’s pretty obvious.” We’ll grant that. But put yourself into the shoes
of the person whose Scripture knowledge isn’t as deep. Even that fairly simple
question has the potential to be answered incorrectly. So if the newbie raises
their hand and says, “He was born in Jerusalem,” now you, the teacher, are in
the uncomfortable position of having to deal with the incorrect answer.

What if the teacher instead asks an open question like the
following? “As far as we know, Bethlehem was a tiny village at the time of
Jesus’ birth. For what reasons might it surprise us that God chose that as the
place for Jesus to be born?” Obviously there are a variety of ways a person
could answer that question, and there is no one “right” answer. Here are some
ways the person may answer: “We’d have expected the Savior to be born in an
important city.” Or, “We might have expected the Savior to be born in the most
religious city.” Or, “We might have expected the Savior to be born in the most
populous city.” The experienced learner might say, “God prophesied that Jesus
would be born in Bethlehem, so that’s certainly one reason he was born there.”
And you the teacher can say, “For sure! Yet, even when he prophesied about it,
he talked about how it was a small, insignificant place” (cf. Micah 5:2). And,
then the teacher can say, “But that might even heighten the surprise aspect of
this!” Then, the learners can explore a bit. Because of the multitude of
possible answers, the open question is far more “safe.” This will likely invite
more people to participate. And as they’re participating, whether they know it
or not, they’ll be exploring Scriptural principles. That’s good!  

The open question
pushes the learners to more and deeper thinking.

Which of the following learning tasks will lead a learner to
more and deeper thinking?

  1. Find the following details in the account: the
    reason that Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem, the birth circumstances
    for when Jesus was born, and whom Luke identifies as the first people to visit
    Jesus.
  2. Read the account. Pick out three details from
    the account which you find to be particularly helpful for us believers.

While both learning tasks inspire some thinking, the second task will push the learners to more and deeper thinking, because of the openness of the question. In learning task “a,” which is a closed question, the learner finds the answers and likely stops thinking. And, the learners only find those details to which the teacher pointed them.

In “b,” the learners find the details themselves. So, how
many details from the account might be brought up? There could be many,
including details which you, the teacher, might not have considered! That alone
will inspire more and deeper thinking on the part of the learners. 

Secondly, adding the phrase "which you find to be particularly helpful for us believers” leads the learner to not only find the details, but to begin to apply them to themselves. That’s deeper, more critical thinking, making it more likely that the learners will learn the material and be able to apply it.

The open question may
level the playing field between those people who have strong Biblical
background and those whose background isn’t as strong.

Think of the previous example (“Pick out three details which
are particularly helpful…”). Who can answer that question? Obviously, everyone!
Both the seasoned saint and the newbie can bring valid thoughts to the
discussion, depending on which details the person picks out. And, the newbie’s
thoughts may be illuminating to the seasoned saint, because the newbie is
approaching the text from a different perspective. Of course the seasoned
saint’s perspective may be useful for the newbie as he or she grows. But, both
the newbie and the seasoned saint can intelligently address the open question.
That leveling of the playing field can be vital for a newbie to feel
comfortable in coming to—and participating in—adult Bible study!

So check your Bible studies. Do they include some open
questions? If not, add some. You may be surprised to discover how much more
learning occurs as a result.

Blessings on your teaching!

Professor Thomas Kock

Next time: How to deal with incorrect answers