Still Questioning!

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 till  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.

I have attached a PowerPoint presentation in which I apply Bloom’s cognitive levels to Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

At the beginning of the presentation, you will see a slide of paint cans with the question, How do I make pink? This story comes from a retired artist named Marvin Bartel, who told me he teaches critical thinking through art to elementary kids. Really? I asked. Critical thinking in elementary school? In art class??? It made perfect sense after he explained it.

Consider this scenario. If a child comes to you and wants to know how to make pink paint, 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. Yes, she may get it wrong the first couple of times. But if you given her the information, she will have no opportunity to develop those higher level processes. It’s so simple, and yet so powerful.

For comparison, look at the questions I developed for “The Global Child,” an essay (on tape) in National Public Radio’s excellent series, Raise the Issues, also in the PowerPoint.

What kinds of questions are you asking in your classes? I think you’ll find that the higher you climb on Bloom’s cognitive steps, the more engaged students become.

How do you make pink?

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

Published by Nancy Burkhalter

I am in love with words. Trained as a linguist, journalist and researcher, I write, teach writing, and research everything about writing, especially how writing aids critical thinking. I've taught around the world, including three years in Kazakhstan, and a year each in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Germany.

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