Designing Effective Projects : Teaching Thinking
Environments that Encourage Thinking

Language of Thinking
Learner Questions
A greatly neglected component of a thinking classroom is learner questions. In the conventional classroom, learners answer questions; they don’t usually ask them. For years, learners have sat in classrooms where the teachers ask the questions to which they already know the answer. Genuine perplexity, which is at the root of all learning, is rarely admitted.

The culture of a thinking classroom must be built around genuine questions, questions which honestly confuse teachers and learners. The switch from answering to asking questions will not happen quickly or painlessly for most learners. Risk is involved in caring about something enough to confess lack of knowledge about it. Nevertheless, creating an environment in which learners freely question the subject matter, the teacher, and each other is critical for developing thinking.

J. T. Dillon (1988), education professor, provides some advice for teachers to encourage learner questions:

  • Provide a place for learner questions in your instruction and wait for them by
    • Periodically during a project asking learners to write down questions they have about the topic being studied
    • Basing a lecture, discussion, or exam on learners’ questions
    • Inviting learners to question you or other learners during discussions
    • Teaching learners to question texts and other teaching and learning materials
  • Welcome questions.
  • Sustain the question by:
    • Reinforcing and rewarding perplexity and the spirit of inquiry
    • Helping learners come up with a way to answer the question
    • Finding out what the question is from the learner’s point of view
    • Appreciating the learner’s knowledge revealed by the question
    • Expressing genuine interest in the question

Good thinkers are good questioners, and with many learners, this skill does not happen automatically or by accident. In a thoughtful classroom, the encouragement of learner questions is very important.

Weil (2000) speaks about teaching learners the “dance of reason.”  To perform this dance, learners must use language as a tool to form, analyze, and defend arguments. She describes the various steps to the dance.

  • Recognizing and evaluating evidence
  • Examining their own and others’ assumptions
  • Questioning deeply
  • Understanding the difference between relevant and irrelevant information
  • Verifying sources of information
  • Withholding judgment until you have enough information
  • Evaluating perspectives and interpretations
  • Recognizing contradictions
  • Exploring interpretations

In thinking classrooms, words like evidence, point of view, and credibility are sprinkled throughout every subject area and every activity. They are occasionally the focus of instruction, but they are always the focus of learning.

Metacognitive talk, as Marzano’s (1998) research shows, is one of the most powerful tools for improving learner learning. Teachers are often reluctant to use thinking as a subject of conversation. Their apprehension may stem from most teachers’ unfamiliarity with their own thinking processes and the awkwardness that usually accompanies initial attempts in this area. A little practice will help teachers become comfortable doing this and when they see the benefits, it will become a regular part of their teaching.

Two ways to foster metacognition are through learning logs or discussions. Prompting learners to answer questions about their thinking can be very effective in helping them grow as thinkers. At the beginning of a project, learners can think about how they are going to set goals and plan their work. During the project, they can ask themselves how their thinking strategies are working and how they might modify or change them to be more effective or efficient. When the project is completed, they can think about what they learned from the way they approached this project that will help them do better on the next one.

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