Three Types of Great Questions
Last year I finished up a degree that included an emphasis on Nursing Education. Since I am a nurse by profession, I studied how to structure a course on nursing. I learned how to design a curriculum and compile a syllabus.
In fact, much of what I learned during that course was not new. I’ve already created courses for Biblical and historical studies. As I’ve designed these courses, I’ve learned that a good course always asks good questions.
If you are trying to teach something to someone, it is important to know how to ask the right kind of questions. If you are an educator, a parent, a manager, or anyone else who even occasionally needs to teach something to someone, it is important to know what questions to ask.
In the west, we have – unfortunately – abandoned much of our classical heritage. What made the classical heritage so good was not only its excellent productions, but also that it was a tradition of thought. The classical ancients already answered many of the questions that we still struggle with today. For example, they already knew how to ask good questions.
You’ve probably heard of trivia, but you may not be as familiar with the trivium. It is an ancient, classical approach to education. In Latin, it refers to three roads. Using the Trivium – a three-step process – allows us to formulate great questions.
The first step of the trivium is grammar. The grammar level is focused on basic comprehension of facts. In any subject that you study, you must first learn the basic facts before you can progress to greater levels of knowledge.
The first type of questions that you should ask, when you are teaching at the grammar level, is questions of knowledge – this involves recall, comprehension, and statement of facts. These questions often involves ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘when,’ and ‘where.’ Sometimes, but not always, this involves ‘why’ and ‘how.’ (More often, ‘why’ and ‘how’ are part of other stages).
You might ask…
…what are the facts?
…provide a definition of…
…describe this situation…
…state the events that occurred when…
The second step of the trivium is logic. The logic level deals with putting facts together, drawing analysis and proof. It requires facts, from which conclusions are drawn. Logic deals with thinking correctly about a topic, understanding it, and working through the bare facts to draw out reasoning.
Logic questions involve analysis, understanding, and reasoning. They often ask the question ‘why.’ When you use logic questions, you ask for more than facts. You ask why the facts fit together and how to interpret the facts.
You might ask…
…why did this happen?
…what can we learn from these facts?
…how do these events fit together?
…why do these facts result in this conclusion?
The third step of the trivium is rhetoric. It moves beyond simple knowledge and comprehension to useable wisdom. It seeks to ask what we can learn from the situation, how it applies to other situations, and what greater lessons are involved. Rhetoric ponders a topic, considers it from different viewpoints, and seeks to find the correct approach. It may even result in trying to persuade others to see things from the right viewpoint.
Rhetoric questions ask how something happens, what we learn, and how to communicate that knowledge. The rhetoric stage is focused on wisdom, which involves a synthesis of the facts and reasoning of the lower levels.
You might ask…
…what overarching principles can be drawn from this?
…how does this apply to our lives today?
…how does this knowledge and reasoning fit into other situations?
…how do we explain this to others in a convincing way?
As an example, I used the trivium to think through questions for my book. Each chapter ends with four types of questions, where I ask readers to ‘recall,’ ‘analyze,’ ‘apply,’ and ‘reflect.’ From a trivium perspective, the first question is a grammar question; the second question is a logic question; and the last two questions are rhetoric questions.
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