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Questions? Questions! A Structure for Teaching

Recently, as part of a larger project, I had the opportunity to observe 27 docents at two large West Coast art museums while they conducted tours with third through sixth grade children. As an educational researcher, it was my aim to find out the kinds of questions docents typically ask during their tours. Since developing the ability to think critically is widely viewed as an important educational goal, I decided to look specifically at questions that promote children’s (and adult’s) thinking (cognitive), rather than emotional (affective), abilities.

The use of questions as a means of promoting children’s higher level thinking has long been considered an effective pedagogical tool and a basic way of stimulating participation, thinking, and learning. In fact, it has been estimated that classroom teachers ask an average of 300 to 400 questions in a single day ! ‘While asking questions is important, it is just as important to be aware of the types of questions you are asking.

Starting With a Structure

It’s easy to get confused when you start to think about all the different kinds of questions you might ask. Therefore, it is helpful to have a structure to give you guidance and assist you in your planning. One such structure is the hierarchy of thinking skills developed by Benjamin Bloom. Although developed in 1956, it is still commonly cited in teacher education textbooks today. The hierarchy ranges from behaviors which necessitate lower-level skills (i.e. Knowledge) to the behaviors which demand the highest level of thinking skills (i.e. Synthesis). Following are brief definitions of each of the six thinking levels (including subcategories) as well as examples of questions used by the docents in this study.

  1. KNOWLEDGE (remembering)

This level involves the remembering of learned information (ideas, materials, or phenomena), either by recognition or recall. Emphasis here is on remembering learned information. There are two primary types:

1) Recall of information, including definitions, actions or events, names, dates, and places. What do we call this? What did your teacher tell you about this artist?

2) Identification of persons, objects, materials, and events. Can you find the boy with the blue shirt? What colors do you see here?

  1. COMPREHENSION (understanding)

This level focuses on those objectives, behaviors, and responses which indicate that the child has a grasp of the literal meaning and the intent of a communication. There are three types:

1) Translation deals with the ability to transpose a communication into another language, into other terms, or into a different form. What does an olive branch stand for? What’s another word for “wonderful”?

2) Interpretation refers to a global understanding of the relationships between the various elements of the communication. What’s going on in this painting? How do you suppose this person feels?

3) Extrapolation involves understanding the likely continuation of trends or tendencies, predicting consequences of courses or action, and understanding implications. Where is the light in this picture coming from ? What do you think would happen next if this painting came alive?


Bloom makes the distinction between Comprehension, wherein a person demonstrates that s/he can apply the abstraction, and Application wherein s/he does apply the abstraction independently and in the appropriate situation. There are three types:

1) Quantification in which the children are not told what mathematical process to apply. How many miles do you think it is back to those mountains? How big is this horse?

2) Physical demonstrations of a concept. In the air, make a brush stroke with your arm that would fit the style of this painting.

3) Problem-solving suppositions wherein children are asked to put themselves in an “if you were in this or that situation, what would you do?”. What if you were a shepherdess and had a flock of sheep and one got away, what would you do? If you were a court painter, how do you suppose you ‘d make the queen look when you were painting her?

  1. ANALYSIS (analyzing)

The aim in this level is on the separation of an item into its various elements and on recognition of the relationships of the parts to the way the whole is organized. Whereas Comprehension involves content of the material, Analysis deals with both content and form, including techniques and devices used to convey meaning. There are two main types:

1) Compare and contrast questions in which children examine or think about a variety of separate issues, putting together the parts into an organized whole to make some kind of comparative judgment, and explicit discourse on the methods. What is different about these two styles of painting? How is life in this painting the same as our life today?

2) Ways the artist conveys meaning which engage children in going beyond simple understanding towards an expression of their insights into how the (artistic) meaning was achieved. How does the artist tell us that there is conflict going on ? What did the artist do to make you feel happy?

  1. SYNTHESIS (creating)

A person operates at this level when she is able to combine all of the elements and parts of a communication that are known, and then restructure them to form a pattern that did not previously exist. Bloom provides the example of “creating a piece of artwork” to typify this level. If creating such a work is not possible, aim at asking questions that elicit original, creative responses from the children. What title would you give this work? Ifyou were going to design a coin for this city, what kinds of things would be important to put on it?

  1. EVALUATION (judging)

This highest level involves making evaluations or judgments about the value of ideas, works, solutions, methods, materials, etc. Such a determination may be based on either internal criteria or external standards. If no formal criteria are available or appropriate, try asking the children to apply and explain their own criteria. Do you think that the use of white was a good idea? Which of these two pots has the best design ?

When a Question Isn’t a Question In addition to Affective types of questions, two other types of questions were used frequently by the docents. The first type was Procedural questions that were used to keep the children focused and on task. This type fell into three categories: Managerial {Does anybody have any questions?). Focusing (Do you see the bird here?), and Probing (What else?).

The second type of question is what I refer to as a Rhetorical or Answer question and is the trickiest of all because this question sounds like a question but really isn’t one. Instead it is a declarative statement of fact that is phrased as a question through the use of add-ons such as, “isn’t it?”, “don’t they?”, “okay?”. Rhetorical questions can almost always be answered with a “yes”, and oral responses typically are not expected. (Looks like an almond shape, doesn’t it?)

Strive for Quality not Quantity

When I began my research, I did not know whether the docents in this study would ask a lot of questions or only a few during their tours. As it turned out, overall they asked many—up to a high of 187 questions in a 50 minute period. That averages out to a question every 28 seconds! But remember, it takes time to respond. This is especially true when answering more difficult higher-level thinking questions. Silence may feel uncomfortable at first; however, allowing some moments of quiet after asking a question will increase learning and show children that you believe their responses are worth the wait.

Integrating higher-level thinking questions effectively into your tour demands practice and a conscious effort on your part to use your own higher-level thinking abilities. It won’t happen by chance. So ask yourself this, “What are my three primary objectives for a tour?” If one of your objectives aims at getting children to think at higher levels, then you are heading down the right path. Next, try recording one of your tours, and then write down the questions you asked. Group your questions according to a framework like the one described in this article. In this way, you will better ensure that your tours are not only recreational but highly educational experiences for children.

The author wishes to express her gratitude to the docents who voluntarily agreed to participate in this project. Without their gracious cooperation, this research would not have been possible. Because the docents were assured anonymity, names of the participating institutions have been omitted.

Laura Wendling, Ph.D.. earned her doctorate in Education in 1991 at the University of Washington, Seattle where she specialized in children ‘s learning in museums. She presently resides in Brussels. Belgium, where she conducts educational research at the Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique {Natural Science Museum of Belgium).

Wendling, Ph.D., Laura. “Questions? Questions! A Structure For Teaching,” Docent Educator 3.4 (Summer 1994): 6-7.

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