Let’s look at one way to measure the types of questions we’re asking. James Gallagher and Mary Jane Ascher’s research lead to my favorite questioning taxonomy with four types of questions:
- Memory – low order
- Convergent – low order
- Evaluative – high order
- Divergent – high order
Let’s look at each one!
A memory question just asks students to remember an isolated fact:
- Who is the protagonist in this story?
- What year was the Declaration of Independence signed?
- How many hydrogen atoms are in a water molecule?
Answers can be one word or short phrases.
Convergent questions require an explanation, but have an accepted (and expected) answer.
- How you know that The Boy was selfish in The Giving Tree?
- Why is carbon heavier than hydrogen?
- Why is George Washington considered a great president?
Note that convergent questions might ask “why,” but we’re going to get a lot of the same response. There’s not really room for interesting thinking. This is important: just because there’s a paragraph of explaining, doesn’t mean there was juicy thinking.
Evaluative questions ask students for an opinion plus supporting evidence. Important: evaluative questions must not have an obviously right answer. Otherwise, they are merely convergent questions dressed up a bit.
True evaluative questions require something that is actually unclear and debatable. Kids need to think. They need to gather evidence. They need to take a stand.
- Who was the better American president, Lincoln or Washington? (Not: Was Abe Lincoln a good president?)
- Which character handled their problems best, Charlie Bucket or Matilda? (Not: Was Charlie Bucket a good boy?)
- Which method is best to solve this particular division problem?
With true evaluative questions, we’re concerned with students’ explanation, not just their initial answer.
And, finally, we have my favorite. Divergent questions ask students to consider the effects of an alternate situation. They’re often posed as hypotheticals. There may not be a knowable answer at all.
- What if Earth had half of its oceans? How would that affect our atmosphere?
- What if we banned cars? How would our cities change?
- What if Ron Weasley wasn’t in Harry Potter? How would that affect the stories?
Note that divergent questions require huge answers in comparison to earlier questions. They also demand a pretty deep understanding of the topic. Students will need to be fluent with the more basic questions in order to think at this level.
It takes scaffolding and preparation to get kids to a place where they can answer a divergent question well, for example. Ask one too early in a sequence and you’ll get fluffy nonsense in response. Ask it at the end of a sequence of lessons and questions and you’ll get magic.
As a teacher, I loved nothing more than being surprised by what a kid came up with, so divergent questions were my favorite. If you subscribe to Byrdseed.TV, you may note that I often lead students to these types of questions. That’s no accident.
I wrote more about divergent questions here.
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