Thoughts on Collaboration and Developing Higher Level Questioning Skills

Whether you are an Instructional Coach, a peer coach, or a teacher, higher level questioning is something that we all think about in one form or another.  In the conversations I’ve heard about critical thinking, Bloom’s Taxonomy is almost always referenced.  As a quick background knowledge review, here is the recently revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Searching for the attribution info. Any leads would be appreciated.
Searching for the attribution info. Any leads would be appreciated.

As teachers, we work to  to ask higher-level questions and help our students stretch their minds and develop higher-order thinking skills.  However, as a teacher this can sometimes sound a lot easier than it actually is.  I believe it takes time and practice to develop this teaching skill.  As Instructional Coaches, we need to have the tools to assist our teachers in their quest to continually develop and refine these important skills.  I would like to put forth some suggestions on how to coach teachers on this area, but they are by no means comprehensive.  I would appreciate any feedback or thoughts in the comments area.

Classroom Observations – This is one of the first places to start.  Coaches need to get a baseline of where their teachers currently are so they can differentiate the best approach for each individual.  Multiple observations are preferable, but any observation in which classroom discussion takes place will suffice.  Be sure that you are aware of the purpose of the discussion, so you can best gauge which levels of questioning are appropriate.

There are different types of data forms that can be used for observation.  One is p. 9 of Jim Knight and the Kansas Coaching Project’s Mini-Coaching Manual Effective Questioning: Empowering Teachers to Ask Powerful Questions version 2.0.  In this method, the coach dictates the questions that the teacher is asking.  The coach can then categorize those questions or, better yet, do so alongside the teacher.  Forms from Coaching Classroom Management can be modified to fit your needs.  You can, of course, also create your own forms.

Common Vocabulary – Before working with another teacher on specific skills, be sure that you both have a common vocabulary from which to draw.  I have found that educational jargon can vary depending on grade levels, content, and region.  This just keeps everyone on the same page.  Bloom’s Taxonomy is often a common starting point where I work.  However, I have found that it is easier to use a simplified system put forth by Knight and the Kansas Coaching Project (see Effective Questioning Manual above).

  1. Know: Questions that prompt students to demonstrate that they can remember information they have learned.
  2. Understand: Questions that prompt students to demonstrate that they comprehend the implications of the information they have learned.
  3. Apply:  Questions that prompt students to extend their knowledge and understanding to new situations or settings.

Elements of Higher-Level Questioning – Here is a list of elements to consider and discuss when collaborating with your teacher, a peer, or in your own self-study.

Opportunities to Respond – How often does the teacher ask questions or give students a chance to respond to the topic at hand?

Levels of Questions – Can the teacher match specific questions with the appropriate instructional level for that lesson?  Do teachers understand when certain levels of questioning are the most appropriate?  Lower level question are important.  They help teachers and students scaffold and prepare for other questions that require deeper thought.

Frequency – How often does the teacher ask each level of question?  Do they almost only ever ask Level 1 or Level 3 questions?  Do the questions they ask match goals of their curriculum?

Wait Time – How long does the teacher wait…….after asking their question?  This is absolutely crucial to eliciting better student answers.  Remember that students need time to process their answers, especially for higher level questions.  Strategies such as Think-Pair-Share can help students do this.  It is also important to “train” students to know that you expect an answer.  The silence may bother you as a teacher, but remember that it also bothers your students.  Use this to your advantage. 🙂

Wording of Questions – How does the wording of a question impact student answers?  Does the question elicit a one-word or yes/no answer?  Does the question have a definate right or wrong answer?  Are there a multitude of ways to answer a question “correctly?”  Does the question require students to provide evidence to support their opinion?  There is no one type of question students should be asked, but how does the wording impact the outcome?

Use of Background Knowledge – The concept of background knowledge and scaffolding is essential for students to connect to knew learning.  Strong neural pathways in the brain are created by connecting to pathways that already exist, much like a system of roads.  The more background knowledge students have to draw upon (content related or not) the better answers they can devise.  Consider structuring higher-level thinking activities so students can draw on that background knowledge to make stronger learning connections.

Student Responses – How students respond to the teacher’s questions can tell you a lot about the discussion norms in a classroom.  Are they respectful of other’s answers?  Do they intelligently contradict one another with evidence?  Do they answer at all?  Is there a broad spectrum of the class involved in the conversation or is it just 2 or 3 students?  How easily can the teacher recognize and redirect students when needed?

Teacher’s Response – The answers a teacher gets can depend a great deal on how the teacher responds to student answers.  I’ve seen many different approaches to this, but which is the right one for the teacher you are collaborating with?  The teacher’s responses can cause students to keep their mouths closed or inspire them to deeper and more creative ways of thinking.

Possible Collaboration & Development Ideas: Here is a list of things you can do with your collaborating teacher to consider the use of higher-level questions in the classroom.

  • Sit down with an example list of questions or a list of questions that a teacher has asked in class.  Collaborate with the teacher to identify the level of each question.  You can have a conversation on any of the observable points above and how student answers would change as the questioning method changes.
  • Write out possible discussion questions ahead of time.  This doesn’t mean that the teacher needs to stick to the exact list, though some may find that method useful.  The point is to consider what you want students to think about before entering into the discussion.  What is the purpose of the discussion?  This helps the teacher to guide the conversation more artfully and elicit better responses from students.
  • Strengthen the teacher’s ability to “go with the flow.”  Discuss and/or reflect on the teacher’s ability to direct the conversation and coax better answers out of students.  How does this work for each of you?  (It can be different)  How do you adapt your questions to get to the purpose of the conversation?
  • Develop classroom activities with other teachers in which students identify and develop higher level questions.  Afterall, we learn best by teaching!
  • Wordle Reference Tool – This Wordle was created using a list of verbs related to the top three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  The purpose of the Wordle is to help teachers brainstorm class discussion questions or activities.  While the focus of this post is on classroom discussion, these verbs can be used to create a myriad of classroom activities and assessment options for students.


A note about community: Classroom community is paramount to the willingness of students to take academic risks.  How comfortable are students with trying out new ideas and making mistakes in a classroom?  If students have differing opinions, how does the teacher facilitate respectful conversation?  I believe that this can have a large impact on the types of classroom discussions teachers are able to have.

I am continually looking for ways to help my teachers and myself grow in this important area of teaching.  If you have any suggestions, resources or ideas, please feel free to leave comments.  I would apprecaite hearing from you.

Additional Resources:


3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Collaboration and Developing Higher Level Questioning Skills”

  1. A fantastic post Liz. Its given food for thought for today. I’ve just started to look around here but I can tell already I will really appreciate your writing.

    I joined the Twitter educhat for the first time tonight and have found my way here. Talk to you soon.

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