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The Power of Questions

By Sr. Gianna Marie Short, SOLT

“How old are you?” “Did you go to the party last night?” “How much do elephants weigh?” “Have you seen the moon?”

female student smiling in class discussion
Students discussing in class

The goal of the Question Game is to ask questions without pausing, repeating, or answering. Thinking of a new question while the last is left hanging requires strength of mind. Most people find it difficult to disconnect from what was asked as the questions immediately engage their mind.

My Philosophy students at John Paul II Junior College would tell you that I don’t like to give answers in the classroom. When a student asks me a question, I rarely answer. That is, I respond with another question. Students are sometimes taken aback, sometimes annoyed, sometimes confused.

Why do I risk this confusion? Why don’t I give the answer and move on? Strangely, some think that I don’t answer because there is no answer. “Everyone has their own perspective and that’s all right. Every answer is correct.” If that were the case, why would we ask the question? If any answer is correct, does that mean no answer is true? “We can never know the answer.”

If we can’t know, what are we doing?

students and teachers discussing around a table
Students and teachers gathering around a table during our Distinguished Discussion Series

St. Thomas Aquinas composing his famous work, Summa Theologica
St. Thomas Aquinas writing his famous work, Summa Theologica

Whatever the point of asking questions, we have good company. Most famously, Socrates taught his students by means of questions in what is now called the Socratic method. Thomas Aquinas arranged the entire Summa Theologica and many other works as series of questions. And since he couldn’t hear your answers himself, he adds several objections of what you might say. Our Lord’s first recorded words make up a question: “How is it that you sought me?” One of His final words is also a question: “Simon, son of John, lovest thou me?” Why didn’t all these teachers just get to the point? St. Augustine, in On the Teacher, explains to his son that the purpose of questions is to “teach the person asked what it is you want to know.” Is this the only reason? Didn’t Jesus already know the answers? “And which of you, by taking thought, can add to his stature one cubit?” Possibly St. Augustine would agree that you can also ask questions to make someone think about what he knows and maybe what he wants to know.

Every teacher in every school wants students to want to know. In asking, especially in ways that truly shake apart the problem (discuss, from dis- ‘apart’ and quatere ‘shake’), teachers give an example of wonder, of wanting to know, as well as a way to get to the truth. Is an example of seeking out truth more compelling than freebie answers? If they’re free, are they worth anything? What do you think?


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