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  • Emma Newling

A. C. TOAD - Answering tough questions

Updated: Jan 16

The tough question. It lands squat on the floor, right at your feet, and stops everything else from zinging along. In a Christian Studies classroom, it happens often! I confess, I love tough questions, they bring energy to the classroom and they are good feedback for me. But tough questions can feel like unwelcome visitors (like a toad, perhaps?), and it’s not always easy to know what to do next.

Allow me to introduce you to A.C. TOAD. This mnemonic reminds me of some key principles I keep in mind when I’m answering a tough question with 20 plus pairs of ears listening in …

A – Accept the question

C – Consider whether you will answer it or not

T – Truth matters

O – Only answer the question asked

A – Authority located correctly

D – Differences acknowledged

A is for ‘Accept the question’

If a student bothers to ask a question, I think it is always important to accept it. Be positive in your receipt of the question – especially if it is asked from a place of genuine inquiry! We all know students who love to create controversy (or push your buttons), but I endeavour to seriously accept those questions as well … sometimes just to show them I’m not afraid! Often however, even questions asked with a bit of sass have an element of seriousness behind them and I never want to shut down my students’ willingness to ask questions: obvious, obscure, cheeky, weighty, or otherwise.

How you accept the question will, of course, depend on:

  • the time;

  • the place;

  • your relationship with the question asker as well as all the listeners;

  • your shared understanding of what is being asked (including any ‘question behind the question’ that you might know is there, but is information not to be shared with the rest of the class); and

  • the appropriateness of the situation and the question.

Consequently, accepting the question might sound like anything from:

  • “great question!” for an on-task, good segue question; to

  • “that’s a really important idea, thanks for raising it” for an important question that you might need to ‘park’ (see below); or

  • “you’ve asked …’X’ … and I can see why you’d ask that, but I think the more significant idea we need to explore is ‘X – adjusted’ [you think fast to reframe it as a useful, relevant and appropriate question]” for a question that has been asked seriously and genuinely but perhaps misses something that is important; or

  • “thanks for asking that question – can you take a minute to think about how to ask that idea in a way that relates to what we are talking about?” for the question that’s asked to see where the boundaries lie.

Once you’ve accepted the question, don’t start answering it. Next you need to …

C is for ‘Consider whether you will answer it or not’

You are the boss of the classroom: you do not have to answer every question that is asked. This might seem obvious to you, but I need to remind myself of this regularly (my delight in student questions sometimes gets the better of me)!

Sometimes questions can be answered on the spot, sometimes they need to be parked. Some questions need to be redirected or researched and so they might inform a future lesson or project-based activity. And sometimes – especially in a primary school classroom – there are questions that are not to be answered by the teacher or the students at that time (it would not be appropriate). This requires professional judgement and it’s best to err on the side of caution. For those difficult questions, accept and respectfully ‘park’ it if you are not sure what to do. Talk to colleagues and figure out what is appropriate, then make sure you honour the student who asked it by either answering it in a future lesson or acknowledging (often to the whole class) that it was an important question to ask, but it is not an appropriate question for you to answer. In which case, redirect them to the right people to talk to (often parents or guardians for primary students, even if you think or know that they will give a different answer to the one you would give).

So, you’ve decided to answer the question (either straight away or some time in the future). There are four key ideas we need to keep in mind.

T is for ‘Truth matters’

Truth matters. That’s it. Don’t mess around with it, don’t shy away from it. If you don’t know what’s true in terms of answering the question, ‘park it’ for a later time and get researching. Students need clarity and they’ve asked you because you are the expert that they know. Of course, with truly tough questions there will be caveats and nuances (which we will acknowledge below) but we need to be clear and honest about what is true.

O is for ‘Only answer the question asked’

Next, only answer the question that was asked. This is much more difficult than it sounds, and it is often where we come ‘unstuck’. If a student has asked a question we want them to do some work. Often we think we can get them to do that by asking the age old ‘what does everyone else think?’, to which there is often a plethora of opinions offered up as answers by students who usually don’t know much more than the question asker. I’m all for drawing people into the question this way, but at the end of it, you – the teacher – need to answer the original question. When you do ONLY ANSWER THE QUESTION THAT WAS ASKED!

Don’t do what most adults do and presume to answer the 8 (or whatever!) other tangential questions you think are important. It’s too much information and your students are not ready for it. If they are, they’ll do some quick thinking and ask a follow up (if it’s a complicated or complex idea I always ask them if they’d like a follow up question before moving on). This principle is precious for tough questions regardless of the knowledge domain!

What does this look like? It depends a bit on the age of your students. With my youngest students it looks a bit like this (and gets more complex as they get older).

Student A: ‘Is God real?’ 

Me: ‘Yes. (close my mouth). 

[If the student is satisfied, the question asking might end here … but let’s say someone else joins in].

Student B: ‘No, he’s not! How do you know God is real?’

Me: ‘If God showed up on earth and did some amazing things that only God can do, would you know that he was real then?’

Student B: ‘Yeah.’

Me: ‘What sort of stuff do you think God could do? Could he change the weather? Could he make sick people better without medicine? Could he make someone come back to life again after they’d died? Is that the sort of stuff you think God could do?’

Whole class: agrees (they might even brainstorm a few of their own ideas).

Me: ‘Cool. Well, you know what? God did exactly that! When Jesus was alive on earth he did all those things … and that showed us that he is God and God is real.[Again, it could end here, or we could explore how we know that happened even though none of us were there (or other tangents) … but I’ll try not to go anywhere else unless a student leads the way. Instead, I might teach what I planned for that lesson … a novel idea!]

A is for ‘Authority located correctly’

Be honest about where this knowledge – this truth – comes from. Is it from an expert that you respect or from a source document that they can check themselves? If it is information from a particular source, then show them where to find it and encourage them to see if they agree with your understanding. Is it your opinion or the agreed wisdom of your culture?

At times, it will be appropriate to show some of your own epistemic humility! You are the expert in the room, but even experts can be wrong so, when appropriate, allow for that possibility and invite your students to teach you something.

D is for ‘Differences acknowledged’

This is particularly important as our students grow and mature into abstract and critical thinkers. Teaching them to show respect to one another involves acknowledging that there are differences of opinion and understanding on almost everything. Showing honour and respect to those who disagree with you, helps keep the conversation open, but more importantly treats those who disagree with the dignity of someone made in the image of God.

The classroom – especially the classroom run by a follower of Jesus – might be the only place where students experience the robust debate of ideas alongside genuine care and appreciation of them as a person. As students gain knowledge and understanding, there is an opportunity to explain why you, as the teacher, are persuaded one way or another, but we encourage them to consider the evidence for themselves and be responsible for reaching their own conclusions.

Tough questions are great places for learning (and modelling how to learn), so next time one hops into your classroom I hope A.C. TOAD will help you to enjoy the activity of answering it!

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