How do the questions we ask students influence the quality of classroom instruction—and by extension, the depth of students’ learning?
This question is critical for classrooms implementing the Next Generation Science Standards and adaptations of the NGSS. Creating a next generation learning environment requires space for creativity, analysis, and decision-making so that students can develop the control and agency necessary to develop and use the three dimensions of the NGSS—science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts.
For students to develop control and agency, they need opportunities to be creative, to independently and collaboratively use the eight science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts to make sense of the disciplinary core ideas, and then have the opportunity to own the result of their efforts, regardless of the outcome.
If you execute skill in a situation, even if your skills are not fully developed, you're going to have control over that situation. No matter the outcome, you own it because it's the result of your ideas. Over time, this process leads to mastery because students have a stake in their own learning.
And that's what this next generation learning environment is all about.
So how can teachers ask questions that really require the creativity, analysis, and decision-making skills necessary in a next generation science classroom?
First and foremost, it’s important to ask questions that require students to think. According to David Perkins, author of “Smart Schools,” “learning is a consequence of thinking.”
Why do we think?
Given that learning is a consequence of thinking, it can be helpful to first define the purpose of thinking. In short, we think to develop and deepen understanding.
The researcher and author Ron Ritchhart and his colleagues describe eight broad thinking moves that are integral to understanding, and can be helpful to keep in mind as we explore more deeply the connection between asking questions and creating deeper, more engaged, more authentic instruction.
These thinking moves, which foster the understanding of new ideas, dovetail with what scientists have learned about how the brain stores and processes information.
How does the brain process new information?
According to Dr. Richard Elmore, research professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the context in which people learn is critical to how the human brain operates. Every piece of information our brains take in is colored by the emotional response we have to that setting at that particular moment in time.
Dr. Elmore found 70 percent to 75 percent of all student-teacher interactions in the classroom are recall or memory-based. This isn’t surprising, given that in a traditional model of instruction, the teacher is considered the content specialist and is judged by their ability to explain things to students, and students are judged by their ability to re-explain, repeat, or recall.
However, according to Dr. Elmore, memory is the least reliable index of learning, in part because of the contextual problems of learning.
“There are no such things as facts to the brain,” Dr. Elmore said at a recent TEACH conference for next generation educators. “Everything—stimuli and information—comes in a particular context. That’s what goes into storage. Not the fact, but the context of the experience in which the fact was encountered…
“When we give kids memory tasks, we’re essentially asking them to store information and give it back to us in the form in which we thought we gave it to them,” Dr. Elmore continued (emphasis added). “We’re judging their fluency as learners based on their ability to recall without regard for the context in which that information was transmitted.”
This has important implications for the classroom because it suggests that the primary forms of interactions between educators and students is not that helpful at promoting student learning, or in measuring what learning is actually occurring.
This is where the art of questioning comes in.
5 Categories of Questions
Another group of researchers, this one from Australia, have worked with students and classrooms all over the world and grouped all questions into one of five categories.
They found that the vast majority of questions teachers asked fell into two categories of questions, both of which require very little thinking on the part of the student because they rely primarily on memory and recall. These two categories are review questions and procedural questions.
Review questions ask students to recall and repeat back information, such as "Who remembers what we did yesterday?"
Procedural questions direct the work of the class, such as "What should we be doing now?" "What should you be doing next?" "What should you be doing when you're done?"
However, because very little student thinking is required by these types of questions, any thinking moves that occur here on the part of the student are essentially the result of luck.
Higher Order Questions
The other three categories of questions are less frequent in most classrooms but far more productive because they engage students in the eight thinking moves discussed earlier. These kinds of questions are generative, constructive, and facilitative.
A generative question initiates exploration of the topic, almost like a spark. It’s as if our minds are a bundle of hay that we're trying to light on fire, and generative questions are the sparks that we're casting into them to engage thinking.
Imagine posing a question to students such as: "How could climate change reduce the diversity of life on Earth?"
With this question, the goal is to generate an exploration of the connection between two different ideas: climate change and diversity of life on Earth.
Answering this question isn’t the result of direct instruction. Instead, it requires that students think differently in order to generate new and different ideas as they think about possible connections between the two ideas. In the process, student thinking becomes visible, revealing their depth of understanding, as well as possible misconceptions, ambiguities, or biases.
Another kind of question that requires thinking is a constructive question, which focuses on building new understanding. This kind of question aims to build a new understanding of something that we believe we understand. This means questioning to extend, interpret, connect, or link.
An example of this kind of question is: “Why would humans continue to do things that contribute to climate change?"
This question asks students to think about the context of people and the context of climate change. What activities that cause climate change do people engage in, even when we know that they contribute to climate change? Why would we continue to do those things despite what we know?
This is taking a known concept—climate change—and extending or interpreting it, connecting it to new concepts, linking it to new phenomena and new ideas.
Asking a question like this provides the teacher with useful information as well. For example, how well does the student understand how human activities contribute to climate change?
It also shows the depth of their science and engineering practices, the skills that they have in order to develop and use those ideas.
Furthermore, it demonstrates students’ willingness and comfort in risk-taking around making those connections and whether they’re willing to present their opinion, engage in gathering evidence, and then using that evidence to inform or reform their opinions. That's such a major driver behind the Next Generation Science Standards that its one of the science and engineering practices dimension: arguing from evidence.
The final category of question is facilitative, which aims to promote and/or the learner’s own thinking and understanding.
An example of this kind of question is: “Can you tell me more?" or “Where do you see that happening elsewhere?”
The goal with this kind of question is for students to elaborate on, clarify, or uncover what they're thinking is, what their understanding is, and to hear different perspectives.
This type of question shifts the cognitive load, putting it back to the student to build their thinking and their understanding.
In fact, this shifting of the cognitive load applies to the last three categories of questions. The teacher is not doing the thinking for the student, planting the Easter eggs and then getting the students to remember where they are and pop them open and get what the teacher put in there.
Instead, these questions empower the student to exercise agency, to attempt a skill, to own the outcome of their attempt, the consequence of executing their agency, and to use their observations and their thinking in order to make sense of it all.
This blog is the first part of a two-part series titled "Asking Better Questions: The Key to Deeper, More Engaged, More Authentic Instruction."