As a newbie teacher, I thought that I knew the magic words to up-leveling a question. When someone gave an answer, I’d narrow my eyes, jut my lips out, tilt my head, and whisper…
Now, I’m only sort of joking, but I really did think that adding “explain why” or “justify your answer” moved my questioning higher up Bloom’s Taxonomy.
But now I realize two things:
- It reveals the low expectations I had for my students.
- The phrase “explain why” often acts as a disguise for low-level questions. It lets dull prompts masquerade as high level.
1. “Why” Should Just Be Automatic
My friend Lisa uses the phrase “Imply the ‘Why’” which means that she never explicitly asks students to “Explain Why.” Why? Let me explain (😆). It’s because “why” is always implied. If you give an answer to Mrs. Van Gemert, then you explain your thinking. She doesn’t need to ask for it.
It’s the expectation.
In fact, it’s a very natural expectation. If I ask you, “Did you like the new Pixar movie?” You’re not going to respond with “yes” or “no” and then shut your mouth, right? That would be weird. You’d naturally offer some kind of explanation.
That very normal expectation should extend to your class.
To constantly, explicitly ask students to “explain why” is like reminding someone to “buckle up” every time they get into a car. No. You just put your seatbelt on. It’s automatic. It’s expected. If I have to remind someone to buckle their seatbelt in the 21st century, we have a problem!
“Explain your thinking” should be as automatic as buckling a seatbelt. And reminding someone that they need to do so should be mildly alarming.
This is part of setting a culture of high expectations. It’s something to introduce in the first days of school and then, once in a while, make a correction when kids leave off their reasoning. But if you make this part of your expectations right away, kids will rise to those expectations.
2. “Explain Why” Disguises Low-Level Questions
First, let’s look at how useless adding “explain why” is to most questions. What do you think about these prompts:
- Was George Washington the first president of the United States? Explain why.
- 1 + 1 = ? Explain your thinking.
- Is it hotter in summer or winter? Justify your response.
Now those are kinda joke-y. But please notice that adding “explain your thinking” does absolutely nothing to raise the thinking expectations of those questions. They’re all still low-level, bottom of Bloom’s questions.
Adding “explain why” doesn’t move us up Bloom’s Taxonomy. It doesn’t lead to interesting thinking. And it can be a bit demeaning, no?
Instead, just start with a better question! I love Gallagher and Ascher’s framework for generating actually interesting questions.
- What would George Washington have disliked about Lincoln’s presidency?
- How many addition problems can you create with a sum of 10?
- If a desert mouse had to move to Finland, how would its adaptations change?
Each of those will lead to a massive jump in thinking compared to simply tacking on “explain why.”