Still Questioning!

Two more wonderful articles about questions: what to ask and why they’re important. No one mentions critical thinking. That’s OK. You and I still know they are the engine behind most of it. Oh – and the second article appeared in the business section! Another reminder that critical thinking is for everyone.

From Edutopia


5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students by Rebecca Alber

From New York Times

The Power of ‘Why?’ and ‘What If?’ by Warren Berger

Questioning Oneself

One of the best graduate school midterms I ever took was given by my mentor and dissertation advisor, Dr. Vera John-Steiner. She is one of four Vygotskian scholars who edited Mind in Society* (1978) and has written extensively about his sociocultural approach to education. In keeping with his philosophy – that acquiring knowledge is acquired through shared activities – she asked for pairs of students to develop a question for each other about anything they might have about Vygotsky’s work. We would then research our question and report the findings orally to each other and written (two pages max) for her perusal. It’s been 25 years since I took that exam, and I still remember my question and the answer. But that exam also taught me how powerful posing one’s own questions can be.

And even though I have superciliously tagged by blog the who, what, where, when, and why of critical thinking, I mean that I intend to seek answers to all those questions about critical thinking. So in that spirit, here are a few questions that have been rattling around in my brain:

  1.  How do the Common Core standards promote CT?
  2. How soon is too soon to start teaching CT and how should we do it?
  3. Do people from various educational traditions think critically in the same way?
  4. Why can’t we agree on a definition of CT?
  5. Do I have to accumulate a certain number of facts about a topic before I can critically think about it and if so, what is the tipping point?
  6. How can two intelligent people both be critical thinkers and yet come to different conclusions?
  7. Can everyone be a critical thinker regardless of IQ?
  8. Why is CT such a vague concept (“I think I know what it is, but I’m not sure”) and is there a better way or term we could use to explain and clarify its meaning?
  9. What are the best practices for teaching CT?
  10. Is there a textbook that teaches CT?
  11. What is Design Thinking and how does it comport with CT?

If you would like to add your own questions—and I hope you do!—or suggest resources to help answer them, I would be so grateful and will try my best to formulate a reply. Please post them on this blog or contact me at nancy . burkhalter @

*Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (Eds.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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

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.