Good Questions Have Groups Talking

A group of 10 that doubles every 18 months will reach 1000 people for God in 10 years.


Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything At Church:
and How to Fix It


by Thom and Joani Schultz

Note: the full copy of this excellent book is published by Group Publishers and is available at your bookstore. One online source is

Today's students have been trained not to think. They aren't dumber than previous generations. We've simply conditioned them not to use their heads.

You may have heard this old Sunday school story:

TEACHER: All right, boys and girls, what's fuzzy, has a bushy tail and gathers nuts in the fall?

JOHNNY: Sure sounds like a squirrel to me but I know the answer must be Jesus.

You see, we've trained Johnny and his classmates to respond with the simplistic answers they think the teacher wants to hear. Fill-in-the-blank student workbooks and teachers who ask dead-end questions such as "What's the capitol of Delaware?" have produced kids-and adults-who've learned not to think. We've programmed kids to look for snappy black-and-white answers that teachers want.

Researchers recently probed a group of second-graders in Birmingham, Alabama. These kids had just scored well above average on a statewide standardized math test. Now the researchers gave them this problem: There are 26 sheep and 10 goats on a ship. How old is the captain?

Ninety percent of the children gave the same answer: 36.1

We've withered kids' thinking and doused their common sense. What's more, we've chilled their creativity. They're programmed to repeat what the workbook or teacher has prescribed. There's no room in this system to think "out of the box." Just say what the teacher wants to hear and forget about it.

Look at this typical problem from a child's reader:

The tightrope walker _________________ on the tightrope.

a. balanced

b. baked

c. bubbled

d. barked

Students who check b, c or d fail the question. But why should they fail? Think about those responses in b, c and d. They conjure up far more creative thoughts than the response the teacher wanted. But no. The student is reprimanded for thinking, for being creative.



Our children are schooled very early not to think. Teachers attempt to help kids read with nonsensical fill-in-the-blank drills, word scrambles and missing-letter puzzles. Educator Frank Smith calls these exercises "r-bbits." He coined the term (pronounced "are-bit") after attending the International Reading Association convention. A computer program was displayed that "helps kids read." The computer asked: "Can you fill in the missing letter in r-bbit?"

Smith says, "The r-bbit teaches children nothing about the way people employ spoken or written language. Filling in blanks is not the way anyone uses language, spoken or written. No one ever says to a child, 'Put on your _________ and we'll go to the game as soon as you guess the missing word.' The r-bbit is irrelevant and misleading."2

Sadly, the Christian world has followed secular education into this folly. Most Christian curricula consist of wall-to-wall r-bbits. Look at some actual examples from well-known denominational and independent Christian publishers:

Write these words in the correct spaces:

forgive confess sins


If we ___________ our __________ to God, God will ___________ us our sins. 1 John 1:9


* * * * *


Read the Bible verses and unscramble the words to answer the questions about trusting God:

Isaiah 40:28-29: What will God give those who are weak and tired?


W E R P O _______________ and G S T T H E R N _______________


* * * * *

Remove the Ds, Ps and Ks:



The writers of this material obscure God's word; they intentionally hide the truth. This is what consumes our children's time in church. And we wonder why they don't understand even the most basic tenets of our faith?

Puzzles, scrambles, fill-in-the-blanks and encoded messages do not promote thinking. They confuse and consternate. Through this type of meaningless busywork our students will not grow closer to God. They may, however, grow closer to winning a spot on "Wheel of Fortune."



Some church leaders aren't altogether sure they want their people to think. They figure they've already done the thinking for their people. All their followers need to do is obey them. Without question.

But research shows that churches that encourage thinking produce more Christians with mature faith. However those churches are in the minority. Only 46 percent of church-going adults say their church challenges their thinking. Only 42 percent of teenagers say their thinking is challenged in church. 3 And only 35 percent of fifth- and sixth-graders say their church classes make them think.4

Learning is a consequence of thinking. If our people aren't thinking, they're not growing in their faith. Christian educator Howard Hendricks says the average church attendee" is not excited by the truth-he's embalmed by it. The educational program in the churches is often an insult to people's intelligence. We're giving them wilted cut flowers instead of teaching them how to grow by means of God's word, which is alive!"5



"Today's people want answers. And here at First Church, we give them the answers."

Some churches advertise this almost boastful, arrogant attitude. The message seems to be: "Ours is a black-and-white world. Come to our church with your questions, and we'll quickly dispense all the right answers and send you on your way."

Well, people today are seeking answers. But most aren't looking for quick and easy answers dispensed to them by authority figures. They want to find answers. They're weary of "just do it because I said so."

Search Institute's Christian education study found that young people said "teaching how to make moral decisions" is a chief responsibility of the church. Notice they did not ask for a list of the right decisions. They want us to teach them the skills to make their own good Christian decisions.

Our people don't need to be told what to think. But they desperately need to learn how to think in a Christian context.

Telling people what to think programs them to be susceptible to unhealthy influences around them. The church often warns teenagers of the dangers of peer pressure. But what is peer pressure? It's the act of basing one's behavior on the influence of outside voices. It's the preclusion of thinking for one's self. The more we tell people what to think, the less they rely on their own thinking processes. The most authoritarian churches, the most authoritarian parents, produce the most peer-pressure prone people.

We help our people grow not by giving them all the answers, but by helping them learn to think on their own. When they learn the process of finding God's direction in their lives, their learning becomes portable. They're able to learn and grow even when we teachers aren't around.

In Japan, where education has been shown to be more effective, students learn to think. As early as the first grade, Japanese students are given up to a week to solve arithmetic problems. They're encouraged to work together and critique each other's approaches. Teachers deliberately avoid supplying the answers. The kids learn. And they learn to think.       

"Too much 'teacher talk' gets in the way

of higher-level reasoning

because it prevents children from doing their own thinking."

Jane Healy, Endangered Minds 6



Jesus, the master teacher, displayed a determination to make his learners think for themselves. Even to this day followers contemplate and ponder Jesus' teachings. That's exactly how he planned it.

Jesus often refused to give a direct answer to a direct question. A lawyer once asked him, "Who is my neighbor?" Instead of supplying a direct answer, Jesus launched into a story about a Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).

He used parables to make people think. And only rarely did he tell his listeners the meaning of his stories. He wanted them to think. And even today the mental wrestling we do helps us wring rich messages from Jesus' parables. And we grow more because we're engaged in the thinking process.

Many contemporary preachers also use parables. They call them sermon illustrations. But few preachers exhibit the faith in their listeners that Jesus did. Instead of telling their stories and sitting down, they usually go on to explain their stories. Their conviction of their flock's inability to think is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So long as Rev. Smith always explains his illustrations, no need to think. Might as well click off the old brain.

Jesus, on the other hand, believed in his listeners' ability to think, and he trusted the Holy Spirit to nudge their thinking. Jesus knew that once you plant a seed, you can trust God and the soil to do the rest.       

"I planted the seed,

and Apollos watered it.

But God is the One who made it grow."

1 Corinthians 3:6

Jesus also demonstrated his commitment to thinking by the number of questions he asked. We went through the gospels and highlighted every question Jesus asked. Those books are now a patchwork of yellow highlighter markings. Scores and scores of questions.

Often when people approached Jesus with a question he responded with a query of his own. One day in the temple, the priests and elders asked Jesus, "What authority do you have to do these things? Who gave you this authority?"

Jesus said, "I also will ask you a question. If you answer me, then I will tell you what authority I have to do these things. Tell me: When John baptized people, did that come from God or just from other people?" (Matthew 21:23-25). Those men were forced to think.

You see, Jesus didn't come to settle minds, but to jolt them. He didn't come to make us more comfortable, but to stir our thoughts, to help us learn, to make us think.



So, we observe that Jesus was an asker. Step into any secular or church class and you'll find the teacher asking questions there too. What's the difference? There's a big difference.

Most teachers ask the wrong questions. We visited a typical first grade Sunday school class and observed the teacher question her kids about Jesus' birth. She spent a significant portion of class time on this question: "Where was Jesus born?" Some of the kids eagerly thrust up their hands. "In heaven," said one. "In a hospital," said another. A little girl said, "On the earth."

The teacher said, "Yes, but where on the earth?"

"In Jerusalem?" inquired one child.

"No," said the teacher." It was in Bethlehem. But where in Bethlehem?"

The questioning continued like this for several more minutes. The teacher had in mind a specific answer she wanted. The kids grew weary of her grilling and lost confidence in their ability to read the teacher's mind.

Finally, with a bit of desperation, the teacher tried to break the stalemate with a clue: "Jesus was born in a m-m-m-m-m-mmmmmm." The kids still didn't get it. The other teacher in the room finally jumped in and said, "He was born in a manger. As usual we're running out of time."

That's the kind of questioning that wastes time and chills thinking. Most of the class sits with dulled minds while one or two students try to reward the teacher with a factoid. That style of asking dominates the time in our churches and schools. One study found that fewer than one percent of teachers' questions illicit more than a factual answer or routine procedure.7

Asking students to recite facts from the Bible or elsewhere exercises just their memory, not their understanding. Even the scribes and the Pharisees knew the facts.

Instead of looking for a response such as m-m-m-m-m-manger, why not try a thinking question? "Jesus was born in the cold where the animals were kept. What do you suppose that was like for him and his mother?" Each individual in the class can answer that question. Each is required to think, to contemplate the humble way in which Jesus came to Earth.

Do you see the difference in goals between the two questions about Jesus' birth? The m-m-m-m-m-manger question sought a single student who might know that one-word answer, like in a TV game show. The "what do you suppose" question sought to make each child think, to imagine, to identify with Jesus.

Jesus didn't question his listeners in order to warehouse facts. He questioned them to make them think. Look at a few of his examples from the book of Matthew:

  • And why do you worry about clothes? ( 6:28)
  • Why do you notice the little piece of dust in your friend's eye, but you don't notice the big piece of wood in your own eye? (7:3)
  • Which is easier: to say, "Your sins are forgiven, or to tell him, "Stand up and walk"? (9:5)
  • Why did you doubt? (14:31)
  • What do you think about the Christ? (22:42)

Christian educator and author Dorothy Jean Furnish said, "Avoid questions that require predetermined answers. This practice results eventually in hypocrisy on the part of children because they tell us what they think we want to hear."8



Helping our people think requires a paradigm shift in how we teach. We need to plan for higher-order thinking, set aside time for it and be willing to reduce our time spent on lower-order parroting, r-bbits and the like.

Thinking classrooms look quite different from traditional classrooms. In most of our church non-thinking environments, the teacher does most of the talking in hopes that knowledge will somehow transmit from his or her brain to the students. In thinking settings, the teacher coaches students to ponder, wonder, imagine and problem-solve.

Let's examine five strategies you can implement right away that will encourage thinking in your church.

1. Ask open-ended questions

"Where was Jesus born?" is a closed-ended question. This type of question is associated with lower-order thinking-memory and recall of facts. There's typically only one right answer to a closed-ended question. A student either knows the answer or not. And if he or she answers, the rest of the class will be uninvolved.

Open-ended questions require more than simplistic answers. They require students to think. And all students can be involved in the process. Thought-provoking open-ended questions invite all to think, to listen to others' responses, and to contribute their own ideas. Open-ended questions cause people to use the content they've learned.

Some examples of open-ended questions:

  • Why did you think God allowed Jesus, his only son, to be born in a stable?
  • If Jesus were born today, what kind of place would God choose for Jesus' birth?
  • If today, an unwed teenage girl gave birth to a boy in an alley, what would it take for you or anybody to believe he was the Messiah, the Son of God?


2. Ask follow-up questions

Today's learners are conditioned to give pat answers-without thinking. But as teacher-coaches we don't have to settle for snap, no-brain responses. We can encourage thinking by asking follow-up questions. Some examples:

  • What do you mean by . . . ?
  • What reasons do you have?
  • How did you decide . . . ?
  • Tell me more.

Now, guess what you're likely to hear from time to time? "I don't know." This terribly common response is the battle cry of a generation that's been taught not to think. But, again, we don't have to settle for it. We can ask an extension question to "I don't know." Some samples from the book Creating the Thoughtful Classroom:

  • Ask me a question that will help you understand.
  • If you did know, what would you say?
  • Pretend you do know-make something up. 9


3. Wait for students' answers

Today's teachers dread silence after they've asked a question. In fact, the average teacher waits only about one second before panicking. Then the teacher typically gives away an answer, rephrases the question or scolds the students.

But thinking takes time. If we ask a good question we need to allow the time necessary for thinking to germinate. The minimum is five to 10 seconds.

We can make think time work by following some simple guidelines:

Tell your class or group what think time is, and why you use it. It's no deep, dark teacher secret. You and your students will be more comfortable with silence if everyone knows its purpose.

Sometimes ask students to write their responses first. Then ask them to share. This encourages everyone's participation-and soaks up the silence with active thinking.

Wait until most students have thought of a response before listening to anyone. Always calling on Howie Handraiser shuts down thinking among the rest of the group. Use think time to allow everyone to devise a response.

4. Don't evaluate students' discussion responses

This is the toughest guideline for us church folks. We naturally want to affirm everyone. And we do that habitually in teaching situations. We love to say, "Good answer!" "Right!" and "Great!"

But think about it. What do those responses do to the rest of the class or group? They telegraph that the right answer has already been given-time to shut down the brain. Smarty Pants has already done the thinking and won the teacher's approval.

The authors of Creating the Thoughtful Classroom write: "Art Costa is a strong proponent of teaching without opinions, and he once demonstrated how the power of opinions can shut down thinking. He began a mock discussion and solicited ideas from his adult audience. Several responses later, he said 'good!' to an idea put forth. Within an instant, I could watch myself mentally shut down. I knew the person was 'right' and had given the answer he was looking for, and I didn't need to think any longer. Your students will do the same thing (and do already, all the time) if you selectively comment on students responses."10

We must recognize that teacher reinforcement is powerful. We must use it wisely.

So how can we respond? We can use non-judgmental responses such as "okay," "thank you" and "uh-huh." These responses acknowledge that students have been heard, without passing judgment, and without chilling thinking among the other students.

We can also reserve our opinion until the end of the discussion. After everyone has shared-and engaged their brains-we can help illuminate the subject with our thoughts or with an insight from God's Word. In this way students aren't encouraged to let the teacher do all the thinking.

But what if a student makes a theologically or morally absurd statement? How do we handle that non-judgmentally? At this point we can jump in with follow-up questions that may help the student and the class see the absurdity. We can also ask others to give their opinion. These techniques can help students discover the truth and flex their brains.

5. Encourage students' questions

As we've seen, thinking percolates when teachers ask good questions. But a sure sign that thinking goes into four-wheel drive is when students begin to ask the questions.

And faith grows when people feel free to ask questions about God. Search Institute found that a church's "thinking climate" grows when members are encouraged to ask questions. However, most churches don't do too well in this department. Only 40 percent of adults and 45 percent of teenagers say their church encourages them to ask questions. 11

When people become askers they become learners. They become thinkers.

We need to do a better job of inviting questions. And when those questions come we must resist the temptation to provide instant, pat answers. We must turn back the myth that our students will lose all respect for us if we sometimes answer their tough questions with "I don't know."

We must allow our people time to think, to wrestle with the issues. As Jesus often did.

And we can create a better thinking climate by encouraging students to ask one another questions. Let them forget we're the teachers for a while. Let them be the askers.

Educator and author Jane Healy said, "The teacher has to be able to stop dispensing information long enough to listen to the children, listen and encourage the children's questions."



Implementing these thinking strategies may not go smoothly at first. We're talking a new language here. Higher-order thinking is a new idea in the schools and in the church. Neither our kids nor our adults are accustomed to really thinking in church.

All of us grew up in the Land of Word Scrambles. We've all been trained to underuse our brains.

So we must be patient. And we can't give up after our first attempt at cultivating thinking. Our people will at first stare at us like deer stunned in the headlights. But they'll come around. They'll grow to love the stimulation that thinking brings. And their faith will grow.


"The mind is not a vessel to be filled,

but a lamp to be lit."


The "DO IT" section that follows offers practical programming ideas to help you share and apply these principles in your church.


Discover ways to create a thinking atmosphere in your church. The following ideas can spark teacher training ideas, yet they can also be adapted to classrooms for older children, youth and adults. In fact, taking students through some of these exercises will set the stage for greater thinking in the future-because they'll understand why things are changing in the classroom. Go for it!





1. Develop a cadre of great askers.

Teachers will need to shift from old ways of doing things. Delve into the "Encouraging Thinking" section on page XX.

Plan to dissect each strategy by creating two different thinking approaches:

  • The "chills and kills" approach uses closed-ended questions, doesn't wait for answers and discourages further questions.
  • The "sparks and embarks" approach uses open-ended questions and follow-up questions, allows wait time, and encourages questions.

Here's how to begin.

Create five teams (a team can be one person). Assign each team one of the five portions of the "Encouraging Thinking" section:

(1) Ask open-ended questions.

(2) Ask follow-up questions.

(3) Wait for students' answers.

(4) Don't evaluate students' discussion responses.

(5) Encourage students' questions.

Have teams read and discuss their section and prepare "classroom" scenarios that will teach the group their strategy.

Assign each team a scripture to portray in their classroom scenario. For example, use Genesis 11:1-9 (tower of Babel); Psalm 23 (shepherd's psalm); Matthew 4:1-11; (Jesus' temptation); Luke 15:1-7 (lost sheep);1 Corinthians 13 (love chapter). Or assign only one passage to all the teams and see what each comes up with to represent their assigned strategy.

Have each team prepare two brief classroom scenarios to present to the entire group that demonstrate the point they studied. One scenario must represent the "chills and kills" thinking approach that shows what not to do-even though it may be typical or natural for most teachers. The second scenario must show the "sparks and embarks" thinking approach explained in their section of the chapter.

For example, the "chills and kills" scenario could show a teacher asking the students yes-or-no/fill-in-the-blank answers with only one excited, very interested student raising her hand to answer.

The "sparks and embarks" scenario could show a teacher asking open-ended questions that kids take time to think about, then discuss with thoughtful responses.

After each team "acts up," discuss the differences in the two scenarios. What's scary about the "chills and kills" scenario? Jot those fears on newsprint or a chalkboard for all to see. (Plan to use the list later in prayer.) Then create another written column of fears concerning the "sparks and embarks" scenario.

Analyze the fear list. Are there common threads? Who or what are people most afraid of? How can those fears be overcome? What's the Holy Spirit's role in the thinking process?

Conclude with a circle prayer. Have each person pray about one of the fears on the list.


2. Create a "safe" thinking place.

Before you launch into requiring more student participation and thought, assess the class atmosphere. For example, is there one person who spouts theology and intimidates the less knowledgeable? Do the junior highers hurl putdowns that insult certain class members? Are there too many kindergartners for one teacher, so some feel trampled and left out? All these things could contribute to people not feeling "safe" to think.

Use the "Safe Thinking Zone Ahead?" quiz below.


Safe Thinking Zone Ahead?

Rate your learning setting by marking the appropriate box.

1. There's adequate adult supervision/leadership.





2. People listen to the person speaking.





3. People show respect in the way they talk to one another.





4. People show respect in the way they act toward one another.





5. The teacher shows respect to each person and each person's ideas.





6. Expectations and rules are clear.





7. Rules are few.





8. People know the consequences if they violate the rules.





9. The teacher models being a learner.





10. Humor is used positively, never to put down a person or that person's thoughts.





11. Everything that's taught and done has a clear purpose that aligns with your goal for learning in the church.





12. Mistakes and failures are viewed as opportunities for growth and further learning.





13. People feel a sense of trustworthiness among the group to take risks.





14. People feel a sense of care and concern from others.





Tally the number of boxes you checked for each:




If most of your boxes said "Never," you've got a long road ahead to change the atmosphere to a safe one. Find a support person or group of people who'll help you make the significant changes necessary. Train students to strive for the 14 items listed in the quiz. With God's help and the help of others it is possible to change and bring people on board for a new, more exciting, life-changing approach to learning.

If most of your boxes said "Sometimes," congratulations! You've got a good start. People in learning situations understand the tip of the "safe" iceberg. Continue to verbalize the 14 items listed in the quiz. This will help train others to focus on the same goal, so you can move more toward "Always."

If most of your boxes said "Always," GREAT! You've obviously worked hard to achieve trust and clear boundaries. Keep it up and use the 14 items listed on the quiz to help others to join in your "safety" cause. You've mastered a safe zone for thinking!


3. Help students succeed by being very clear about your expectations.

Together create a "covenant" or agreement for your class.

One successful teacher begins every year with one rule: RESPECT. Students explore respect and divide it into three categories: respect for the teacher, respect for one another, and respect for the facility. Together they decide what that means: what respect looks like, sounds like and feels like in each category. Next they design a colorful poster with the word "respect" on it, plus their definitions. Once it's completed, each person signs the poster as a commitment to respect. Since the teacher has used this activity, the classes have run more smoothly and the atmosphere is more conducive to thinking.

Here's a list of expectations that promote thinking among students. Talk about the list. Don't keep it a secret! Let people know how important these elements are to the success of the class. You'll commit to doing the best you can and expect the same in return. Help students develop these skills:

  • listen to one another
  • participate
  • take time to think- and feel okay about that
  • give reasons for answers
  • stay on the task or topic
  • ask thought-provoking questions


4. Study how Jesus asked questions.

Turn teachers into detectives. Do a Bible study that explores Jesus' question-asking techniques. Have teachers pair up and divide one Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John) into sections among the group. Or if you have four groups, assign one Gospel to each group. Have them list on paper every question Jesus asked in their portion of scripture. Encourage teachers to analyze why the question was so effective or powerful in each setting. What can they learn about formulating questions after studying Jesus' questions?


5. Learn to phrase thought-provoking questions.

In the book Endangered Minds by Jane Healy, the author speaks of children lacking experience with "wh" questions (who, what, when, where, why and how). "Studies demonstrate that educating teachers in specific questioning techniques can improve their students' reading comprehension, among many other skills, by moving their thinking up from literal repetition of facts into the realms of comprehension, application and inferential reasoning."12 Here are samples of some particular types of questions:

  • Closed-ended question: "What did Goldilocks do when she got to the three bears' house?"
  • Comprehension question: "Why did Goldilocks like the little bear's chair best?"
  • Application question: "If Goldilocks had come into your house, what are some of the things she might have used?"
  • Analysis question: "How can we tell which things belong to which bear?"
  • Synthesis question: "How might the story be different if Goldilocks had visited the three astronauts?"
  • Evaluation question: " Do you think Goldilocks had a right to do what she did? Why or why not?"13

Share the preceding information with teachers. Discuss each kind of question. Have teachers each bring their curriculum teachers guide to review. Where there are closed-ended questions, replace them with comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis or evaluation questions.

For fun, star all the questions in the teachers guide that require higher-order thinking. Count them and see how the questions rate on making people think. How much of it do you have to adapt?

For additional flexing, assign teachers various scripture passages and have them devise thought-provoking questions for them.

6. Develop a list of tips for thought-full teachers and classrooms.

Together, brainstorm ideas that will help students and teachers create a thinking atmosphere. Discussion-time ideas could include:

Write questions on the board or newsprint for all to see. (Since most people are visual learners, this helps learners focus on questions that might otherwise be lost because they're handled only verbally.)

Explain to students up front what you're up to. (Let students know you're trying something new and why. Let them join in making a thinking classroom happen.)

Tell students you'll wait for answers. (Good questions mean people will need time to formulate answers.)

Let students know you'll be giving them feedback on their answers with words such as "thank you" and "uh-huh." If they're used to you gushing praise on their answers, this will help them understand you aren't disappointed with them, you just want to make sure everyone gets a chance to think before assuming the "right" answer has already been given.)

Explain the use of small group interaction. (Chapter 7 will address that more in depth.)

7. Challenge teachers to break old habits.

If teachers want to improve their ability to ask better questions, they can:

Use an audio or video cassette to record their class. This will help "play back" the reality of what's asked during class time. (Those who've done this warn teachers not to be too hard on themselves. Don't pick at each little infraction, but rather evaluate the scope of what's asked and ways to improve.)

Invite someone they respect to be their "observer." This person can watch and analyze classroom interactions that the teacher might overlook. They can spend time processing the class with their observer, celebrating their successes and growing from their weaknesses.

Invite students to listen for closed-ended questions and point them out to the teacher during class. (One courageous teacher who tried this technique gave points to students who recognized closed-ended questions. She discovered this not only helped her, but got students to really listen!)

Find a support system. Get together with other teachers who are trying on new teaching methods. It'd make a great support group at church.

Then work on improving bit by bit. Don't give up. Remember, we've gone for years and years teaching a certain way. It's not easy to break old patterns. And it takes time to develop new habits.

Let God's words "Well done, good and faithful servant!" ring in your heart.




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