Which book has influenced me the most as woman, mom, and homeschool teacher?
Easy answer…the Bible.
Beyond this Sunday School answer, The Question by Leigh Bortins has truly changed the way I teach, parent, and live. I have read many books about education, but this one surpasses them all.
Five years ago, I began a journey.
A journey of simply reading a book. A simple journey. Or so I thought. I expected to be inspired and challenged as a homeschool teacher. I expected to receive practical tips and suggestions I could apply in our homeschool.
But I received much more than expected.
Most surprisingly, I received deep conviction from the Holy Spirit about my own heart. He changed my perspective of myself, my methods of teaching, and my vision for my family’s education.
A recent crisis left me feeling devastated.
I cried over a book.
No, my tears were more about the loss of my notes from a journey, my journey through the book. My notes, highlights, sticky tabs. All were gone.
(Continue to the end to hear the end of this story. Don’t miss my biggest surprise from this journey.)
I could read a new copy of the book.
Leigh Bortins personally even offered to give me a new copy. But the journey could not be the same.
I grieved the loss of my reminders of the beginning of my surprising, transforming journey of asking questions. I expect to continue this journey for the rest of my life.
But in the beginning, I was surprised by five unexpected benefits.
1. Asking questions reflects and promotes humility.
Asking question often requires an admission that I do not know something. Truth? I hate being wrong. This is where the Holy Spirit convicted me of my pride in not wanting to admit when I do not know. Learning to ask questions is creating more humility in my heart.
I must train myself to focus on another person rather than myself. When I speak in imperatives and declaratives, the focus is on my thoughts. But when I speak in interrogatives, I invite you into the conversation. I express my desire to hear your thoughts, opinions and desires. Thus, questions help me focus on you.
The urge to tell you all that I know must be squashed. As I invite another person into the conversation, there are times I will not say something that I really do know. This offers someone else the opportunity to share what they know or think. Again, this reflects a growing humility of the one asking questions rather than spouting off thoughts on top of their mind.
2. Asking questions allows space for wrestling with ideas.
For pre-teens, this is huge! This transitional stage of life is all about internal wrestling. As parents, our natural tendency is to squelch their arguments and questions. In order for them to move from childhood to mature adulthood, they need space to wrestle. If we will leave conversations open through questions, we give them a gift of safe space for this wrestling.
As a parent, I have had to confront my doubts and wrestle with ideas of my faith. Fear quickly creeps in as our children reach a season where “because I said so” no longer suffices. Will they truly follow God’s Word? Will they listen to the messages of culture? Asking questions of my young teenagers leads me to a place of wrestling with my faith. Do I truly believe God is able – even with my children?
Wrestling with ideas promotes an environment where families are committed to learning together. If we as adults always simply tell how it is, we miss out on opportunities. Rather, if we allow questions to remain unanswered, we create an environment where we expect to learn together. We learn that wrestling is part of life.
3. Asking questions is a skill that can be learned.
We learn skills from other people – a model or a mentor. Our classic model for considering how to use questions for education lived many years ago: Socrates. Ever heard of Socratic circles? They are nothing intimidating – just conversational learning. Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle. Aristotle gave us an instruction manual for this skill in Topos (Topics). The five topics common to any conversation give us a springboard for learning this skill of asking questions: Definition, Comparison, Relationship, Circumstance, and Testimony.
Starting small is key to learning a new skill. Learning about these five common topics changed the way I converse with my children. But at that time, they were all under 10 years old and not ready for deep discussions. So I started small in practicing my new skill. Sonic slushies. Yes, that was our first five common topics conversation. All I did was ask question after question. Then I followed up with yet another question.
An environment conducive to over-practicing greatly impacts our ability to learn this skill. Our Sonic slushie discussion inspired me to intentionally build a conversational culture in our home. I only asked questions of definition and comparison. What is this? What is it made from? What are the parts? How is it different than SnoBiz? Another early conversation – with questions about a simple teapot – led us to sing I’m a Little Teapot, learn new vocabulary of types of spouts, and discuss whether the Israelites drank tea. It was such fun! I was amazed at the details they drew out of their current knowledge.
4. Asking questions connects us to people – today and throughout history.
Since it is a basic conversational skill, people have used questions throughout the ages. Reading The Question inspired me to attempt reading part of Aristotle’s Topos. Yes, I actually read Aristotle. Again, surprise encountered me as I turned page after page. I actually understood. People who lived thousands of years ago were normal people, just like me. As I continued my journey in pursuit of using questions, I imaginatively shook hands with Aristotle and said, “Hello, I’m Aimee. It is nice to meet you.”
Conversation leads us on a journey with one another. “Aristotle’s followers taught under the covered walkways of the Lyceum in Athens…according to legend – because they taught while walking with their students.” (Bortins, The Question page 26) Sometimes, our conversations lead to much frustration. Trust me, I know. Our family conversations to practice my skill of asking questions are not always beautiful and worthy of mentioning in a blog post. But they take us on a journey together. As Bortins says, “When you walk with someone, you embark on a journey together.” (The Questions page 26)
Over time, we learn the truth of there is nothing new under the sun. “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Perhaps my biggest surprise in reading (parts of) Aristotle’s Topos was that the topics were not really new for me. I am familiar with defining terms, comparing ideas to similar and different ideas, considering the relationship between ideas, contemplating the circumstances in which something exists, and seeking authority and testimony on the subject. Asking questions reminds me that I am not as unique as I would sometimes like to believe. Thus, questions connect me to people I never knew.
5. Asking questions is a tool to foster lifelong learning.
We learn the value in not knowing the answer. “Your task is not to have all the answers; rather, it is to engage your children in dialogue, honestly confronting their questions, and at the same time learn how to model the type of questions you want them to be able to ask on their own.” (Leigh Bortins, The Question page 25) If Mom or Dad can always give the answer to the question, then our children have no reason to pursue learning throughout their own lifetime.
Confidence increases as we realize we often do know the answer. “You have to circle around the first question by asking more questions until your child realizes one of two things: 1) he actually does know the answer…” (Bortins, The Question page 25) If we continue asking to draw out knowledge our children have, they might be surprised at themselves. We can help build their confidence as learners by asking in such a way for them to realize what they do know.
When an answer is not known, wise questions foster curiosity to seek new information and understanding. “…2) he doesn’t know as much as he thought he did and maybe he should study more.” (Bortins, The Question page 25) At times, not knowing just leads to hard work of seeking the information we need. But other times, the unknown sends us on a quest, a journey to explore and seek that which is currently unknown. Parents’ questions can foster our students’ curiosity so they want to learn.
But the best surprise for me?
Learning to intentionally use questions is creating a more restful homeschool environment for my family.
My heart is more restful. My children are more restful. My family is more restful.
It is a long, slow journey, but as we learn to use this skill, we are growing in a sense of rest. I am learning that restful teaching really is possible for the homeschool teacher.
And my book, my beloved copy of The Question?
It was in my daughter’s suitcase that was not stolen. My tears of grief became tears of joy.
Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
That’s one more surprising benefit from this journey:
Asking questions brings joy to my heart, my family, and my homeschool.