Challenging Questions

Posted on March 21, 2012 by Amy Tolmie
Categories: Primary, Secondary, 16-19s, SEN,

I love it when there are space for students to open up the big questions in lessons, but this can also lead to us 'freezing' if we haven't thought about how to go about answering challenging questions. My first instinct tends to be to ask the student "what do you think?" and direct it back to them. This does two things: gives me a bit of time to think about how to answer it, but also gives me an indication of where they're coming from with their question. Beyond that, here at we've thought through our top 5 tips in answering tricky questions. Here you go:

1. Validate their question

First of all thank the young person for their question and make sure they don't feel silly for having asked it. Sometimes it can be a risk for a child or young person to step up and put their hand up and ask something in front of others, so validate them to start with and say that they've asked a good question.

2. Listen for the question behind the question

Very often children and young people will ask questions that are close to their own experience and therefore have some personal connection with what they are asking. They may hide this with a more general question, but be aware of underlying sensitivities. For example, they may ask a question about why God allows people to suffer. You may be tempted to launch into a well-rehearsed monologue stating your response to this question, but the question may just be a cry out to be heard because their grandparent has just died and this is their first experience of death. The way you handle their question can sometimes make a big difference, and it may be appropriate to start by asking them why they have asked that question. With questions about pain or suffering it is good to not dismiss this, but to acknowledge that there are so many situations and things we all go through that cause us pain. Remember to validate the question, but also the person and their experience.

3. State your answer in one sentence and then progress

When answering young people's questions, we sometimes come up with quite a few different things to say, especially if there is not a simple answer. It can be very easy to confuse a child or young person with your answer and send them away not being any clearer than when they asked, or even more confused! Make sure you don't air all of your jumbled thoughts in a random order, but first state how you would answer the question in one sentence, before then going on to expand if needed.

4. Be honest if you don't know how to answer the question

It can sometimes be really refreshing for a young person to hear that you do not know how to answer a question. Always say that you will try to find out or open the question up to the class to ask them how they would go about responding. It is good for students to see that you are also going away and doing your homework! Just make sure that you don't forget about it, because even if they don't mention it again they will remember at some point that you never came back to it.

5. Ask if that has helped

After you have answered the question or fielded comments from the class, make sure you go back to the student who asked the question and ask if that has helped. If it hasn't, and you don't have time to spend more time on it then, ask them to write their question down and hand it to you at the end of the lesson. Say that you will then return to it soon in another lesson and apologise that you didn't have the time that it deserved in class today. The important thing for a student is that you have listened to them and taken their question seriously.