Four Types of Questions in Christ's Dialogical Method
Critical reflection is a key element to the rabbinic method of teaching employed by Christ, and the use of questions in this model plays a key role. Jesus is famous for His questions, using them as tools for learning with His disciples, the religious leaders which opposed Him, as well as the general population who heard His message of the Kingdom. Peter’s Great Confession in Matthew 16 is the outcome of a group dialog in which Jesus asks questions of His disciples. Indeed, He would often answer a question with another question, causing further reflection on the part of those who had engaged Him. An example of this is in Luke 22 when Jesus is questioned about paying taxes to Rome. From all this we see that the critical reflection process is key to integration of understanding and applying such understanding to life.
Adults, in particular, learn through a discovery process in which they must come to their own conclusions. This is in contrast to younger children who learn through mimic, emulation and rote memorization of facts. Indeed, the common term we use for the educational process, pedagogy, is from the Greek meaning "to lead the child." Malcom Knowles coined the helpful phrase andragogy to describe this adult learner dynamic, with critical reflection and discovery learning being central to adult education and learning.
Steven Silbiger points out how the rabbinical process of question asking has come down to the current era:
The Jewish religion focuses on the individual and his or her own spiritual life and journey. It is therefore important that Jews are involved in spirited discussion and debate about the various stories and laws in their religious texts as a means of forming a personal and intellectual attachment to their religion.
He contrasts this with contemporary Christian religious education and its dogma which is to be accepted by faith – with little or no dialog or questions being asked. Noting this departure from the rabbinical process, he goes on to point out how the inclusion of dialog in educating plays out in the critical thinking skills of Jews:
Beyond the context of religious readings, critical thinking skills are encouraged and developed in the Jewish community. These highly transferable skills also form the basis for many secular pursuits in the humanities, the sciences and business. It is therefore not surprising that 40 percent of American Nobel Prizes in science and economics have been awarded to Jews, and Jews have won 25 Percent of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans. Despite a lack of secular educational opportunities throughout their history, the Jews’ religious training created a literate and intellectual culture that celebrated academic achievement.
Indeed, the power of the question was known to the rabbis, and was introduced to older children through the Haggadah, the Telling, of the Passover Seder. Older children would ask their father questions during the meal in order to facilitate the Telling, e.g. “Why is tonight unlike any other night?” and “Why do we eat bitter herbs?” This allowed for a knowing of the story, an understanding of the “why” of the Seder as well as how the lessons of the meal were to be integrated into life. Question asking in a dialog was part and parcel to the teaching method of the Rabbis, and an effective way to help adult learners integrate belief into life.
In my work with coaching and consulting with pastors, church planters and denominational leaders, in the mentoring of younger developing leaders, as well the general discipleship I do as a pastor of a local church, I have found four types of questions are very helpful in facilitating the kind of holistic learning which integrates belief into the everyday life of adults and older teens. I share them here as a process for facilitating the discovery learning needed for such life integration. Essentially, through these question you can pretty much help anyone engage in critical reflection about anything they may be facing or thinking about. Here are the four question types:
This kind of question is embodied in something like this: “What do you see? This is a top-level question designed to focus the person’s thinking, creating the span of what is in discussion. It allows for more questions to clarify perception, seeing if it is truly accurate, and creates and “inventory” of the person’s observation reflections to the current point in time. It creates the critical reflective framework for the following questions to effective and meaningful.
Dealing with emotions right up front is important, as until these are properly realized and identified they can be obstacles to further discovery. I often say “emotions a real, but not necessarily a reflection of what is true.” So an affective question like “How does this make you feel?” works really well to help people engage their emotions about the topic in a healthy manner which will facilitate greater learning discovery. Such a question allows clarification on how our emotions have had an affect on our perceptions, and sets up the next segment of the discussion, spurring a differentiation between feeling and thought. On the positive side, intuition which is subjective and often expressed in the affective domain, e.g. a “gut feeling,” can be discovered and clarified, a “pre-cognitive knowing” coming into more focus.
With perception evaluated, and emotional responses to the issue in question properly differentiated, we can now deal more effectively with cognition. Having dealt with feelings, we can now deal with facts. “What do you think about it?” is archetypical in this category of questioning, “drilling down,” as it were, into the application of logic and rationality to our discovery process. We can test and weigh the subject in discussion through tests of logic, gaining an objective clarity. When added to our initial perceptions and properly delimited emotions and intuition, brings our understanding of something to a greater level.
The purpose of the discovery learning process as outlined here, it to help the learning come to a great understanding of something that can facilitate personal growth and transformation. All true learning does this and something far more than the simple acquisition of facts and data points. Accordingly, it must produce an understanding of meaning and promote application of the new understanding to one’s life. Through a question like “What do you think this means?” we are asking the person with whom we are in dialog with to synthesize an interpretation from the discovery gleaned through the previous three modes of questioning within the dialog. Such synthesis is vital for integration to life – a person must decide for themselves what something means to have a proper “ownership” of the truth they have discovered if they are to make personal application. Such life application is the fruit of discovery learning.
Jesus knew this. Guiding His disciples in self-discovery allowed them to embrace both who He was as Lord and Christ, and to embrace the continuance of the mission He was calling them to. Jesus, the Master Rabbi, used questions to build His Church. Still today, Jesus’ mission requires Jesus’ method. So, like Jesus, let us embrace the questions.
 Steven Silbiger, The Jewish Phenomenon (Landham: The Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Co., 2009), 24
 Ibid., 25
Rev. Dr. Tom Johnston is the Co-Founder and Executive Director for The Praxis Center for Church Development. He is also the President and Chief Educationist for The Trivium Institute for Leader Development. He serves as the Lead Pastor for Trinity Life Community in Bedford, NH.
Trinity Life Community is the fifth church Tom has pastored with his wife Cathy, having previously planted four churches, with four more having come out of their ministry. Through these churches Tom has raised up 27 people into credentialed pastoral ministry. In addition, Tom has served as a denominational leader for church & leadership development and church multiplication, and is a trained NCD Coach-Consultant. He coaches denominational leaders across the Body of Christ in leadership development, church health and church multiplication systems, as well as providing mentoring, training and coaching for church planters from emerging generations. Tom is the co-author of four books with Mike Chong Perkinson. He holds a PhD in Education. He lives just outside Manchester in Bedford, NH with his wife Cathy and their two dogs, Jessica and Pippa Puppy.