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How Questions Promote Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Learning Across Subject Areas

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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In the last blog, we took a look at the perspective of perspective of Irving Sigel on the importance of asking different kinds of questions as a way of deepening students' social, emotional, and cognitive learning. Coming from a Piaget approach, Irv felt that students needed to go from understanding the material as presented to generating their own thoughts about it. He referred to this as "distancing" -- not the clearest term, but a way of saying that questions could be sequenced toward leading to students' higher order and constructivist thinking by having them take a range of perspectives about a given reading or topic.

Continuing with our example using the children's story, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," you can see below the wide range of questions that can help children think of even a simple story in ways that promote many different kinds and levels of thinking:

Low Level Distancing

Distancing Strategy   Example from the Story
To observe   Where did the story take place?
To label   What was the little girl's name?
To describe or define   What was in the bowls?

Medium Level Distancing

To sequence   What did she come to first during her walk? What did she do when she got there? What did she do next?
To reproduce   What happened when no one answered her knock?
To compare . . .   What was similar and different about what was in the three bowls?
1. Describe similarities   What is similar about what she found in the living room and in the bedroom?
2. Describe differences   How were the three beds different from one another?
3. Infer similarities   How was Goldilocks' reaction to the first chair and first bed similar?
4. Infer differences   What was different in her reaction to the first and second chairs?
To propose alternatives . . .   What else could Goldilocks have done to rest that would have not led her to upset the bears so much?
1. Symmetrical classifying   Would you consider the story of Goldilocks and the three bears to be more like the story of the three little pigs or like the story of the three blind mice? Why?
2. Asymmetrical classifying   Which bear do you think Goldilocks found to be more frightening -- the mama or the papa? Why?
3. Enumerating   In total, how many things of the bears did Goldilocks try to use in some way?
4. Synthesizing   Can you tell me the story from baby bear's point of view?

High-Level Distancing

Evaluate consequences   Based on what happened, do you think it was a good idea for the bears to leave their house unlocked and unattended?
Evaluate own competence   If you were Goldilocks, would you have walked into the house? If you did walk in, would you have done what she did?
Evaluating affect   Do you think the bears' upset at Goldilocks was appropriate? Do you think Goldilocks should have been frightened of the bears?
Evaluating effort and/or performance   Did Goldilocks' escape plan work?
Evaluate necessary and/or sufficient   Would the bears have been as upset if Goldilocks had not eaten all of the baby bear's porridge or broken baby bear's chair?
Infer cause-effect   What might the bears have done if Goldilocks had not woken up?
Infer affect   How did the bears feel when they saw that someone had been sitting in their chairs?
Generalize   Now that we know this story, what do you think Goldilocks' reaction would be if she knocked on a door and no one answered?
Transform   How do you think this incident will impact on Goldilocks as she grows up?
Propose alternatives   How else could Goldilocks have reacted when she saw the bears? How else could the bears have reacted when they saw Goldilocks in the bed?
Resolve conflict   What might the bears have done to peacefully resolve their conflict with Goldilocks had she not run away?

It should be a short extrapolation to see how these questions can be applied to more complex literature, and how having students address these questions in individual journals or small group discussion can be a powerful cognitive, social, and emotional learning experience for them. However, these methods are equally valuable in the non-fiction world. They can be applied to social studies and current events, service learning, and the history of innovation and discovery in science, math, art, music, and technology.

There is no formula for asking questions, of course. Irv's point is to make sure that educators (and he includes parents in this category) regularly use questions that require low, medium, and high distancing on the part of learners. No one level alone is appropriate. And when text, whether fiction or nonfiction, is the basis of questions, it is always appropriate to ask children, "Where in the text are you drawing from in giving your answer?" This will foster more careful and grounded reading and allow you to correct for obvious errors of facts or questionable inferences.

What are your thoughts and ideas about this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

Thank you for shining a light on the power of questions. Sometimes those who know don't have the patience you exhibit and learning opportunities are missed. Keep writing and teaching us to question.

Denise M. Cassano's picture
Denise M. Cassano
Artist, Educator, Dog Lover

This is one of the most important aspects of teaching- we must reflect on what we ask and how we ask it. The same critical thinking questions can be asked of art-to an even more ambiguous end. I made a graphic of how analyzing art can lead to higher level thinking- and conversation: The important thing to remember is that students must defend their thoughts with specific information from the story or image. If they make a conclusion or judgment about the piece, they should be able to articulate *why* they feel the way they do. This leads to metacognition which translates into all areas of their lives.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

The next step is then to have students generate these questions for each other - and then for themselves. Great resource for generating critical thinking questions.

MTaylor's picture

Thank you for this post on questioning. I believe that high level questioning conditions critical thinkers. If we remain at the lower level of questioning, the expectation will remain low. If we want students to think critcal at the highest level (deeper) we must condition them. I appreciate your insights.

padma sowrirajan's picture

Reading the blog, now I question myself why have I not been doing this with my kids. I tell them stories from time to time but never prodded them for higher order thinking. It had shed a light for me as a teacher to enhance their critical thinking. I think for the present and coming generations it means a lot for children to take right choices for them and for the society.

Jeff Kress's picture
Jeff Kress
Associate Professor of Jewish Education

Thank you for sharing this. I have been influenced by Irv Sigel and his work, often reminding myself to "ask, don't tell" (easier said than done!). Though much of this work focused on early childhood, I have found the idea of "distancing" through questioning to be useful at other ages as well. Skillful questioning can , for example, lead to the type of reflection that can help adolescents explore their identities.

Dhanyatha Manjunath's picture

Thank you for sharing this! This is a very informative post which throws light on the importance of questions in learning process. The concept of distancing is interesting and categorizes a wide range of questions into three groups, with each triggering increasing level of thinking. I feel that this approach can be easily extended to other subjects of interest and different age groups of students. Questions require students to justify their responses, build on a peer`s answer or summarize their answers. During the process of formulating relevant answers to the question posed, students need to put their thoughts into words. These activities do trigger cognitive processes related to learning.

Also, related work by Webb (Information processing approaches to collaborative learning)
in this area, highlights that by asking questions, student`s understanding about a topic could be strengthened, fill in missing gaps in their understanding or correct misconceptions. It helps them discover new relationships between concepts or pieces of information.

Overall, this article focuses on showing how questions can help students think in different level and explore different train of thoughts. Instructors can design questions keeping the concept of "distancing" in mind, to make lessons more thought provoking.

Sonali's picture

This is a very interesting post. It is always true that asking questions stimulates thinking. Its a very good concept to categorize the level of questions since that will have an impact of the level of thinking that is required. An article named "6 creative ways to use questions in the classroom" ( gives a very good explanation of how questions can improve students ideas. It states that it is always a good idea to ask questions about concepts which will encourage students to think and then explain the concepts rather than give away the information directly. It states that questions should be designed in such way that people differently think over the question. The questions can be categorized as some to check the recall and some to stimulate ideas. So depending the category questions should be framed.
Asking questions also leads to interaction which gets the feeling of social belonging and solves the issues of misunderstanding. A very good and informative post indeed!!

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