Questions: Our Secret Weapon


Alison King, in her article “Designing the Instructional Process to Enhance Critical Thinking across the Curriculum,”* relates the story of physics Nobel Prize winner Isidor Rabi. When he returned from school, he said his mother would not ask what had he learned, but rather what good questions had he asked that day. He said it had a profound influence on his learning. We teachers can do the very same with our pupils. Here’s how.

In Table I (below), King provides a sampling of generic question stems.  On the righthand side, she notes what thinking skill each generic question focuses on. They span most of Bloom’s Taxonomy. There is even one that asks–not to just remember information–but to activate prior knowledge. Brilliant! I especially like the one that asks for identification and creation of analogies and metaphors. What better way to demonstrate someone’s understanding than by creating a metaphor? These stems work for any subject and with a wide range of ages: Elementary teachers might be surprised at the answers they get. And, to paraphrase Lev Vygotsky, there is no time like the present to introduce any kind of learning, regardless of age.

King question stems

King recommends having pairs or groups formulate their own questions using these stems as a guide. Even if students don’t answer them, at least they’ve engaged with the material.
This approach leaves memorizing in the dust as far as the mental horsepower required, a lesson that lasts throughout their education and life.

*1995, Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), pp. 13-17.

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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