"We are closer to G-d when we are asking the questions, than when we think we have the answers" Heschel

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

When a question isn't a question

FNQ – thought for the week

I once heard a story of person who had a friend that was a non-believer. In an attempt to show his friend the folly of his ways the man took his friend to go and visit a great sage who could answer any question the non-believer had. The man was sure that once his friend was given answers he would return to the proper path. When the non believer arrived at the sage and asked his list of questions the sage responded: “I can give answers to questions but I can not give answers to answers.”
Often we are confronted by people who make statements that are disguised as questions by a false question mark. The punctuation mark does not make a question a question; rather, only the sincere interest on the part of the questioner to learn something makes a question a real question. It is important to clarify that sometimes as Jews we may know the answers to certain things but that doesn't mean our question isn't genuine it just means our question is of a different nature. (see last week's post on Jewish questioning)

As a teacher it easy to respond to a sincere question. How to respond when a student asks a statement is much more challenging. The approach in the above story is one option. After all if the person isn't really asking a question than it is a waste of words to try and give them an answer. I believe that there is another approach. Don't attempt to give an answer because they didn't really ask a question. Rather turn the situation around. Tell them that their question is an interesting one and ask them what they think the answer is. Empower them to begin a genuine dialog in order to search for answers to their questions. Surprise them by responding to their statement with wholehearted interest. When a student feels that you respond with respect to their statements then they will seek your answers to their questions.

What do you think?

Binyamin - Always looking for a good question


  1. I completely agree with you on the aspect of respecting your students as people, including their questions, answers, and thoughts. It's something I've always strived for in the classroom and in one case I found out years later that it was recognized by a group of very, and I mean VERY, difficult students. They admitted to me that they never crossed the line with me, contrary to their behavior with other teachers, because they always felt I respected them in and out of the classroom. I only wish I had known that at the time!

  2. A thought. I feel it is very important to respect the questioner, the questioners worldview and the question. Often the easiest way to deal with a question is to undermine its assumptions. This is fine.

    When a question is based on a particular perspective and worldview, it is tempting to "answer" by negating the assumptions, in this case, the questioners worldview. I would be wary of this because it may answer the question but it probably will not help the questioner.

    Questions are best responded to from the perspective of the questioner.