Questions, continued, a.k.a. Making Pink

We think that getting an education is all about answering questions when it’s really all about asking them. That’s because questions help focus and sharpen our thinking. Answers just stop it cold. As Paul and Elder1 state, “Feeding students endless content to remember… is akin to repeatedly stepping on the brakes in a vehicle that is, unfortunately, already at rest.”

Questions, Paul and Elder continue, “determine where our thinking goes” (p. 62). Scientists would never get anywhere if all they did was collect facts. Instead, they ask questions such as “What other uses can we put this drug to?” “Why does Washington State have an inordinate number of cases of multiple sclerosis?” “How can we send a man to the moon?”

Interestingly, not all questions are created equal, especially in terms of critical thinking. Let’s take Bloom’s Taxonomy, that 60-year-old warhorse of a classification system that divides thinking into levels of cognitive difficulty. Recalling knowledge, a.k.a. remembering, as it is called by some, is at the bottom. Unfortunately, that’s where most of our education is stuck—stuffing facts down our students’ gullets. No question that facts are necessary. But what good are they if we don’t question their validity, hidden assumptions, and logic, or ultimately connect them to the big picture?

Here is the graph that shows the various levels Bloom outlines:

Blooms taxonomy1

I have attached a PowerPoint presentation in which I apply Bloom’s cognitive levels to Goldilocks and the Three Bears (with a great deal of help from http://courseweb.unt.edu/gmayes/documents/Blooms_Taxonomy.html).

For comparison, look in the PowerPoint presentation at the questions I developed for “The Global Child,” an essay (on tape) in National Public Radio’s excellent series, Raise the Issues. You can do this for any text you want. Better yet, have students do it on their own.

At the beginning of the PowerPoint, you will also see the slide below of paint cans with the question, How do I make pink? Behind the question is a story told by Indiana-based artist Marvin Bartel. He told me he teaches critical thinking by asking questions of elementary kids in his art classes. Really? I asked. Critical thinking in elementary school? In art class??? It made perfect sense after he explained it.

Paint cans

Consider this scenario. If a child comes to you and wants to know how to make pink, you have two choices. You can tell her how to do it, or you can say, What do you think? By choosing the second approach, the child is then free to hypothesize and experiment (i.e., analyze and create). Yes, she may get it wrong the first couple of times. But if you give her the information, she will have no opportunity to develop those higher level processes. If allowed to experiment, she becomes invested in the answer and begins to rely on herself for information. It’s so simple, and yet so powerful.

And speaking of questions, what kinds are you asking in your classes? I think you’ll find that the higher you climb on Bloom’s cognitive steps by asking questions that employ those cognitive skills, the more engaged students become.

Socrates was killed in 399 BC because those in power thought he was corrupting youth by encouraging them to question the status quo. So don’t think questions aren’t powerful. They are the very antidote we need against muddled thinking and seductive propaganda.

1Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2007). The thinker’s guide to the art of Socratic questioning. Dillon Beach, Calif.: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

 

Questions, Anyone?

We think that getting an education is all about learning information when it’s really all about asking questions. That’s because questions help focus and sharpen our thinking. Answers just stop it cold. As Paul and Elder1 state, “Feeding students endless content to remember… is akin to repeatedly stepping on the brakes in a vehicle that is, unfortunately, already at rest.”

Questions, Paul and Elder continue, “determine where our thinking goes” (p. 62). Scientists would never get anywhere if all they did was collect facts. Instead, they ask questions such as “What other uses can we put this drug to?” “Why does Washington State have an inordinate number of cases of multiple sclerosis?” “How can we send a man to the moon?” And don’t forget Who and Where.

Interestingly, not all questions are created equal, especially in terms of critical thinking. Let’s take Bloom’s Taxonomy, that 60+ year old warhorse of a classification system that divides thinking into levels of cognitive difficulty, with recalling knowledge at the bottom. Unfortunately, that’s where most of our education is stuck—stuffing facts down our students’ gullets. What good are facts if we don’t question their validity, hidden assumptions, logic, and connection to the big picture? Socrates was killed in 399 BC because those in power thought he was corrupting the youth by fostering their intellectual development and encouraging them to question the status quo. So don’t think questions aren’t powerful. They are the very antidote we need against muddled thinking and seductive propaganda.

1Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2007). The thinker’s guide to the art of Socratic questioning. Dillon Beach, Calif.: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Critical Thinking and MOOCs – A Marriage Made in Hell

To paraphrase a well-worn phrase from the Clinton administration, It’s the students, stupid! I read an article in the Sunday New York Times Business section (6/1/14) titled “B-School, Disrupted.” It’s about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that all the big-name universities are tripping over themselves to get up and running. MOOCs (and online courses in general) are supposedly the answer to all our education woes: they reach large audiences (hence the name), anyone can sign up anywhere in the world (often for free), participants can do them at their own speed, the university saves money because they’re fairly cheap to produce, students don’t have to come to schlep to campus, they aggrandize the name of the university, and so forth.

            But did they even discuss how well students learn from MOOCs? Of course not—it was a business article. All they cared about was how much prestige Harvard was going to gain from such a venture or lose if they don’t jump on the bandwagon. And I suppose if I lived in Timbuktu or Vladivostok, I’d appreciate the opportunity to learn what I could from a Harvard professor and in my time zone. But I just think it takes a tin ear to ignore the fact that online courses in general, not just MOOCs, are a really poor delivery system of education and especially critical thinking.

            Here’s why. Critical thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it sure doesn’t happen with some lone soul pecking away on a keyboard or reading or listening to lectures and then answering a few questions afterward. Retention rate? Not great. Isolation factor? Huge. Deep understanding of the material? Measurable in inches, never yards. Do you think the Socratic Method would have ever caught on if you had had to go to a chat room, put in your two cents, and wait for a reply the next day or two or three? The only skeptic in the article was the dean of the Business School—the real hero of the story— who said MOOCs were “not for us because for a hundred years our education has been social.” Yes!

            Critical thinking thrives on interaction to calibrate the validity of our thinking: what do others think? What arguments have I forgotten or do I need to develop? And what about capitalizing on a teachable moment—that fleeting, organically timed window to seize students’ thinking/attention to maximize the impact on their learning. You think that’s going to happen in a MOOC? I don’t think so. Do you think Harvard cares? Not according to this article. Do you think educational matters should be discussed in the business section? Me neither. Because I see students as minds to be molded, not as dollar bills to be plucked out of a wallet. Wake up Harvard, and all you money grubbing universities so concerned with your image and professorial popularity. You’re delivering an inferior product flying erroneously under the banner of education. Your win is the students’ loss. Now write a 25-page paper about how people learn best. Give examples.