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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Stirring Students to Ask Tougher Questions

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

I recently introduced Costa's Levels of Questioning to my students. We have some teachers at my school talking about these triggers of metacognition, so it compliments everyone's efforts to enter this discussion in the classroom.

In a nutshell, Costa's questions are a more staccato version of Bloom's Taxonomy, making it more accessible to more students. Rather than talk using a vocabulary of six categories of learning, we muscle it down to three. No matter -- it's the discussion that counts.

A Classroom Conversation

I begin my lesson by asking them why people go to the gym. "To work out their muscles," a student inevitably says.

"So," I continue. "When a person works out their muscles, are they building them to lift something heavy right now?" They shake their heads. "Of course not," I agree. "We workout our muscles now in order to be able to lift something heavy in the near or distant future. That's how it is with education," I say.

I admit to them that not everything they will learn today will apply to their lives later. But, I tell them, the importance is in "working out your brain" so that it can think and problem solve about life's greater problems when one day they meet them. I explain that school is like a gym for your brain. I tell them, "It's like 24 Hour Brain Fitness and studying math works out certain neurons, while practicing writing works out others."

The student then point out that if you only work out one arm in the gym, for instance, you get out of balance. "Correct!" I beam. "And that's why we study different subjects and not just the ones we understand or enjoy already." I explain to them that this is why we are discussing multiple-intelligences.

I announce to my students, "We will be looking at the different ways to ask questions, and we'll decide if we are working out our brains just a little bit or working out our brains in a way that makes us sweat."

This is when I tell them about Costa's Levels of Questioning.

Levels of Thinking

Level I: Input

At this point, if it's eighth grade, I recite The Preamble. If it's seventh grade, they get "All the World's a Stage" (thus integrating their history curriculum respectively). "Reciting takes a certain level of skill, don't you think?" I ask, flexing my wrists like I'm working them out with a small hand weight. They nod.

"But does it prove that I understand what I'm saying?" I ask them, adding, "Would you agree that proving that I get what's coming out of my mouth might work out my brain further?"

[Questions that are level one include sentence stems that ask them to: describe, identify, define, and recite.]

Level II: Process

I then recite my respective piece again, this time with inflection and passion, punching words verbally that are important and using my face and gestures to highlight the meaning of the words. "Now," I say. "If I were to take apart these phrases and shuffle them around in sentence strips on your desk, and you were to use the words and punctuation and meaning as context clues to put them back in order, wouldn't you say that you were working out your brain more than you did before?"

This time I flex my forearms, miming bigger hand weights. They start to nod more, some of them moving their arms too, some showing me their biceps, knowing what's coming.

[Questions that are level two include sentence stems that ask them to: infer, compare/contrast, sequence, and categorize.]

Level III: Output

I then ask them to think about the following questions:

"Using textual evidence, could you predict what would have been the message of the Preamble if our forefathers hadn't used the word perfect to describe our union? How would the ideal of our country have changed if they had instead used the word acceptable?"

I ask them all if their brains are starting to sweat. They laugh. I push my arms up, straining in my mock workout. "I feel like I am bench pressing 250 now, let me tell you!"

[Questions that are level three include sentence stems that ask them to: judge, evaluate, create, hypothesize, and predict.]

Knowledge Into Action

I then show them Costa's words and sentence stems to help them form their own questions for each of the levels. "Now, here's your challenge: You guys are creating next Tuesday's quiz for your fellow students on our latest reading selection. I want you to develop questions -- high-level, deep-thinking questions -- that honor confusion. (A guy named Sheridan Blau once said, "I believe in honoring confusion.") Show me, and them, how much you understand about your story by asking great questions."

I also agree with the student who invariably ends up shocked that it's hard to develop a Level III multiple-choice question. I tell them this is why standardized tests are generally Level I questions. They seem somehow cheered by this realization.

My eighth graders are currently reading Laurence Yep's "The Great Rat Hunt," while seventh grade is reading, Gary Soto's "7th Grade." Each student then creates ten questions that can be multiple-choice or short answers using Costa's Levels of Questions. I cull through the questions, pick the ones I like, and there you have it: a student-created assessment.

Share with us ways you use Costa's Levels of Questioning in your classrooms. What are the benefits of teaching the different question levels and training students to put them to use? We look forward to hearing from you!

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night
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