The Question and The Questioner


When a parent approaches me about tutoring a child struggling in mathematics, I often hear something like, “I know how to do it. I just cannot seem to explain it.” This parental familiarity with the topic while being unfamiliar with teaching leads to frustration and a sense of failure for both the teacher and the student. This dynamic extends to conversations involving philosophy and theology, and with this essay, I hope to provide a useful perspective.

Among countless theories of learning – let’s label this collection “Epistemology and Education” – two emerge as useful for the student and ubiquitous in the profession. Tabula Rasa (“TR”) means “blank slate” and suggests that the mind is empty and in much need of being filled with knowledge. A woeful oversimplification, it serves to describe much of what passes for education today. The otherwise unencumbered corners of the brain must be filled with names of capitals and multiplication facts, for starters. Contrast this with a different learning process based on the Zone of Proximal Development (“ZPD”), which was formalized and promoted by Lev Vygotsky. “He originally defined the ZPD as ‘the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.’”1 ZPD considers the cognitive state of the learner and builds on this current positioning. While TR is better described as depositing knowledge, ZPD might be described as developing knowledge. TR involves mastering the material, while ZPD adds consideration to maturing the mind.

I hope that paragraph rings true and is an “aha” moment for you, Gracious Reader. I recommend taking a moment to reflect on your own personal experiences of both formal and functional learning over the years. Much learning involved the acquisition of facts to be faithfully parroted on an exam. As age provides experience and perspective, we process the information (i.e., headlines) in a completely different way. We get a driver’s permit by learning some basic rules of the road and some sound principles of safe driving, which we reproduce on a written exam. We get a driver’s license by first driving in a parking lot, then on country roads, then in the village, and eventually graduate to the highways. Referred to as scaffolding, this is a simplistic contrast between TR and ZPD which should help to illustrate the differences.

Looping back to my initial paragraph – “I know how to do it. I just cannot seem to explain it.” I often suggest this is caused by the difference between answering the question and answering the questioner. We typically answer the question through a TR lens – there is missing information that must be provided. This treats learning as little more than a search engine. The answer is provided, and the deed is completed. We answer the questioner through a ZPD lens – what is the previous experience and current development of the individual upon which a response is built?

Consider Luke 24, which records the conversation between Jesus and two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus. Verse 15 says they “talked and discussed these things” and in the subsequent verses, Jesus asks questions before giving answers. He listens to the disciples’ response before launching into what must have been an unforgettable study of Old Testament passages: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”2 He did not merely answer a question, he considered the questioner and heard what was on their minds before teaching.

When I tutor a student, I use the first meeting to learn about the student. In the following example, I use fishing as my subject, and this can be anything of interest to the learner. Without surprise, the interest is often computer games! The inquiry is the same whether it is fishing, gaming, gardening, or having a pet.

When you learn about fishing, do you prefer:

  • To figure it out on your own?
  • To have somebody show you how, and then you go from there?
  • To have somebody guide you as you figure it out?
  • To watch videos or read books about how to fish?
  • To participate in a conversation at a fishing club and glean from the opinions of those attending?

You get the idea. The student gets to talk as well as process a question which can greatly impact the next steps of learning. As we prepare to educate our children in a new school year or perhaps as we participate in a Sunday school program at our churches, I hope this perspective is useful. I ask myself regularly, “Am I answering the question, or am I answering the questioner?”

This approach has application in philosophy, politics, and evangelism. I leave that for another time if there is interest.