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To Get Better Thinking, Ask Better Questions

Every child is born with a questioning mind. Two-year-olds are famous for continually asking “why?”—and never being satisfied with the first answer. They are always trying to get to the “why beyond the why,” that next-level reasoning behind our first response. 

To build critical thinking skills, we need to nurture this questioning mind as children get older. Too often, children are trained (intentionally or unintentionally) to see learning as a process of finding the one “right answer.” But the heart of critical thinking is looking beyond simple answers and getting to deeper levels of understanding—“the why beyond the why.” Students who continually question to test their understanding, dig deeper into a topic, or even challenge the status quo are developing the critical thinking skills they will need to become lifelong learners and problem solvers. In fact, it is precisely the ability to keep asking better questions that leads to great discoveries and new ways of thinking in all disciplines and fields. Here’s how you can help students take “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How” to the next level to support higher levels of learning. 

Critical Thinking and Questioning  

Socrates recognized the importance of questioning for developing understanding and reasoning skills more than 2,000 years ago. The Socratic Method of teaching through questioning still stands up today. But even more important than asking questions is teaching students how to ask their own questions. In many ways, this can be considered the essence of critical thinking. Paul and Elder (2000), in Critical Thinking: Basic Theory and Practice, explain, “Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. Had no questions been asked by those who laid the foundation for a field…the field would never have developed in the first place.”

Questioning is closely tied to the process of metacognition, or “thinking about our own thinking.” Metacognitive questions that support higher-level thinking include: 

  • What do I already know about this?
  • How do I know this?
  • How reliable and unbiased are my sources of information? 
  • When would I use this, and for what purpose?
  • How does this connect to other things I know? 
  • How does this change my thinking about a related topic?
  • What pieces of this do I still not understand?
  • What else do I need to find out, and where can I find the information?

Beyond the Five Ws: Increasing the Rigor of Our Questions 

We often teach children questioning through the “5 Ws and 1 H”: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Often, we think of the first four questions—the Who, What, When, and Where—as basic knowledge questions and Why and How as higher-level questions. But it’s not always that simple. It is possible to create both higher-level and lower-level questions for all the Ws (and H). Consider the difference between these “Who” questions: 

  • Who drafted the Marshall Plan?
  • Who were the primary beneficiaries of the Marshall Plan?

The first question is a basic knowledge question—Google it, write it down, move on to the next question. The second question asks students to think about what the treaty says, who it was written to benefit, and in what ways—a much higher-level task. 

Increasing the rigor of the questions we ask—and the questions we teach students to ask for themselves—is one of the key ways that we increase rigor for the assignment as a whole. Here are some examples of lower-level and higher-level questions for the 5Ws and H: 

5 Ws

The questions in the figure above are only a few examples out of hundreds of possible questions at every level of Bloom’s taxonomy. And of course, there are hundreds more that don’t fit within the “5 Ws and H” framework. Questions like:

  • Do you believe…?
  • Can you create…?
  • Is there a better solution for…?
  • Can you think of an example of…?
  • Could this have happened if….? 

Support for Rigorous Questioning with Thinking Maps and the Frame of Reference 

To move students to higher levels of rigor, encourage them to keep asking questions—to get to the “why (and how) behind the why.” The best kinds of questions are those that don’t have a simple answer that can be found through a Google search or expressed as a multiple-choice question. In a Ted-Ed Blog, Mary Halton (2019) recommends four strategies (based on the work of Brian Oshiro) for moving beyond the superficial: 

  • Go beyond “what” and ask “how?” and “why?”
  • Follow up with “How do you know this?” 
  • Prompt them to think about perspective. 
  • Ask them how to solve the problem. 

For example, if you want students to understand the impacts of a new piece of legislation, you can start with the question, “what are the intended outcomes of this legislation?” It’s not a bad question—but you can take it further with related “how” and “why” questions. For example: 

  • How will this legislation achieve those outcomes?
  • Why should our community vote for or against this legislation? 

Students can work through these questions using a multiple-Map Thinking Maps exercise. 

  • A Multi-Flow Map is used to show the intended outcomes of the bill (cause-and-effect). 
  • A Flow Map could be used to show the mechanisms leading to each outcome—what actually happens in the chain of events from legislation to outcome?
  • They could use Tree Maps to explore the pros and cons of the legislation or show how it impacts different groups of stakeholders. 
  • A writing Flow Map can be used to help them organize their ideas for an opinion piece. 

Students can continue to go deeper with questions like, “What unintended effects might result from this legislation?” and “How would you change this bill to avoid those unintended effects?” Students can use and combine Thinking Maps in a variety of ways to explore these higher-level questions. 

“How do you know this?” and “What is the perspective?” are important questions, too. Students need to be able to determine the source of their information and understand the perspectives and potential biases that may be influencing the way information is presented. In a Thinking Maps school, students learn to use the Frame of Reference to explore questions such as:

  • Where did you get your information?
  • What is the point of view that is influencing this information source?
  • What conclusions can you draw from this information?

As students learn to show their thinking through Thinking Maps, they are also learning to use and apply the academic language that corresponds to each Map, including questioning language. Using the Maps, students learn how to ask, and answer, questions at all levels of thinking. 

Going further: 

To learn more about implementing Thinking Maps, talk to your Thinking Maps representative

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