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Stirring Students to Ask Tougher Questions

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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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!

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

Not sure if this is anything that will hold on. FL has moved from Blooms to Webb depth of knowledge (DOK). To big of a push to look at anything different.

Jenny Nelson's picture

Our class maintains a wiki. One of the pages contains Bloom's taxonomy and it links to a helpful site that lists verbs and question stems for the different levels of the taxonomy [ ]. I ask students to incorporate some of these verbs in our blog to read the higher levels of critical thinking. Of course, the same could apply to other taxonomies. ***For some reason, this website is not linking correctly. You may have to copy and paste it to make it work--if you are interested!

Erica Shells Mayes's picture

bath water. It's all the same, DoK just insures that we are truly asking deeper level thinking questions, rather than just applying a Bloom's term to a task that is not truly calling for a deeper level of thinking.

Dina's picture

Heather-- how do you translate a Level Three question into a multiple choice format without replacing the higher-level thinking with psychometrician strategem? Seems to me this belies the point of the exercise?...

Amber's picture

Asking students to think at a deeper level is something I work on each and every year. I try to get them thinking about the books they read in a much more in depth manner. We study "right there" and "think and search" questions. However, even after discussing and modeling what it means to ask meaningful questions, they still struggle. I don't know if it's lack of motivation or lack of understanding.
I like this idea of using Costa's Levels of Questioning. It seems like a simplified way of showing students the difference between types of thinking. I love the example conversation you described and I think that this is a great way to help students understand education, learning, and types of thinking. I am going to experiment with this strategy this upcoming school year and I am excited to see how my students respond.
Being able to think critically and analyze on a deeper level is a necessary life skill and this activity works to do that. Thank you for the idea as I am always looking for something new to try in the classroom in order to improve student learning.
I too am curious though as to how you turned a Level Three question into a multiple choice question for an assessment?

Sally Q's picture

I found this to be very helpful. I am a true believer in Bloom's Taxonomy, but I found this method quite intriguing. I prefer the 3 levels over Bloom's 6. It seems you could still promote higher order thinking but with fewer steps. I think this would be great if you were short on time. I am definitely going to try it out with my students.

Jamie Press's picture

Hi Heather,

This is a fantastic article. I'm studying to become a high school teacher here in Australia. I love the analogy of going school is like going to the gym, but to workout your brain. And admitting the fact what we you teach students today isn't always relevant in their later lives, but it may well be!

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