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September 2015 | Volume 73 | Number 1
Questioning for Learning
Carol Ann Tomlinson
In the era before high-stakes testing (a time sadly unfamiliar to most current students and many teachers), school-based conversations regularly focused on instructional design that served as a catalyst for student thinking. At that point in the meandering history of pedagogy, educators were exiting instruction derived predominantly from behaviorism and entering an awareness of cognitive psychology. There was a nascent sense that we were teaching minds, and it was compelling.
Teachers wanted to understand what it meant to ask a 7-year-old or a 17-year-old to think deeply. We tried approaches born of our own emergent thinking about thinking. Some of these turned out to be lame, some promising, but both kinds were instructive to my colleagues and me. We saw ourselves growing as we adapted new approaches. I can't reconstruct exactly how our intuitions about teaching for thinking evolved, but I readily recall a patchwork of moments in that process.
My friend Dianne was an elementary teacher who loved mathematics. It struck her one day that her students were politely waiting for her to show them whatever they needed to "learn" to fare well on the next test. Stopping in midstream of an explanation one class, Dianne asked students to signal their level of understanding of the topic. Everyone indicated competence. She asked them—first as a whole class and then in small groups—what questions they needed to ask before moving on to the next topic: There were none.
"Great," Dianne said, "we'll go ahead with a chapter test tomorrow and then move on." The student scores on the test were generally dreadful, and students were dismayed.
"What went wrong?" Dianne asked her kids. "How was it that you thought you understood? Where were the gaps?" She challenged each of them to write down questions they could have asked to get an accurate sense of whether they truly grasped the ideas the unit was exploring.
Through the remainder of that year, Dianne never abandoned that approach with her young mathematicians. They gradually became experts at asking revealing questions—of themselves, one another, and their teacher. As the year ended, Dianne's students were thinking deeply about math; more to the point, they understood it deeply.
Another colleague, Geri, asked her middle school history students to take on the roles of various actors from the time periods they were studying. In role, they talked to one another about common concepts, and Geri had each student try to see the concept through the lens of his or her character's social position or personal persuasion.
Initially, the idea was alien to students trained to retrieve facts. In time, they wrote paragraphs that reflected a growing conceptual awareness ("If Thomas Jefferson were to speak with Rasputin about human rights, here's what he might say."). By the school year's end, students could engage in roundtable conversations, inquiring and responding in role, exchanging thoughts with characters representing varied times and perspectives.
In biology, George's students took part in a semester-long archaeological dig. At first, they were puzzled by why they were digging holes in the schoolyard and trying to make sense of clues (written by the previous year's science students) that seemed totally disassociated from biology. In the end, they understood the dig to be an analogy for the process of scientific inquiry. They saw themselves as inquirers who understood both the process and its power to inform.
Lisa, an art teacher, consistently asked her students why a particular artist worked in a certain style; why that style might change over time; why the artist may have chosen to depict a single object over the course of many years; or how a painting might reflect the architecture, music, or dance being done by other artists from the same period. The discussions that followed such probing questions shifted how students thought about their own art and its role in making meaning of their world.
During this time, I confessed to students that I often didn't like reading their responses to prompts because they generally all said much the same thing in the same language. We looked at the elements of Bloom's taxonomy—a relatively new tool in classrooms at the time—and explored how a response written to prove we knew what a poem said literally, for instance, might differ from one written to show we grasped its deeper meaning. In time, my students became comfortable and then skilled (for 13-year-olds) in writing more effective and original responses.
At another point, I suggested that we don't really understand a thing in depth until we begin to generate insights about it. We studied insights of noted people (not always about profound things) and our own insights. A common culminating assignment became generating an insight about something we were studying, explaining how you arrived at it, and defending why it was worthy of being called an insight. I could see my students begin to think differently—and I saw myself changing even more than they did.
The "good old days" weren't perfect; every time has its merits and challenges. Nonetheless, I felt more like a teacher when my colleagues and I discussed how to help our students become better questioners and thinkers—as opposed to more recent professional discussions that, necessarily, focus on maximizing student proficiency in getting the right answers on tests with long-expired freshness dates. We weren't better people than today's teachers. We did our work, I believe, in a better time—one more conducive to asking questions about the generative role of the teacher in evoking powerful learning.
Here's the real point of this reminiscence: Many days now, I think I hear stirrings of the conversations common in that other era. I see more educators questioning how their practices could better enliven learning and the young people who engage in it. I read more books that sketch out mind-focused images of teaching. I'm hopeful. It would be good for us all to be free again to question what learning really means—and to question for real learning.
Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundation, and Policy at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She is the author of The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (2nd ed., ASCD, 2014) and, with Tonya R. Moon, Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom (ASCD, 2013).
Copyright © 2015 by ASCD
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