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This is the 16th of a
series of IAE Newsletters exploring educational aspects of the current
cognitive neuroscience and technological revolution. Bob Sylwester
(Newsletter # 75) and Dave Moursund (Newsletter # 76) provide two
introductory articles. Newsletter # 77 and subsequent newsletters are
written by guests. However, Sylwester and Moursund also intend to
contribute to this emerging collection.
For the most part, these guest articles will focus on cognitive
neuroscience. Dave Moursund will provide Information and Communication
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Strategies That Build
Thinking and Learning:
A Critical Need for 21st Century Education
"You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell
whether a man is wise by his questions.” (Naguib Mahfouz; Egyptian
writer and winner of 1988 Nobel Prize; 1911–2006.)
Classroom Instruction and the Brain
In the late 1970's, I read the book Thinking Goes to School
by Hans Furth and Harry Wachs, (1975) followed by an article
written by Herman Epstein (1978). The two readings had a powerful
impact and changed the direction of my career. From that point on, I
looked at classroom instruction through a neurological lens. I
recognized that only through active processing could information
be retained and more importantly retrieved. I realized that learning
emerged when an intriguing event, activity or story engaged the learner
and stimulated active processing.
At the time I was a middle school reading teacher, and consequently I
began to structure the learning with my new perspective in mind. I
organized each lesson by asking myself questions. What am I going to do
to engage the learner in the lesson’s objectives and concepts? How am I
going to do this in a novel way? How will I structure the
lesson for the most involvement? What strategies will I use to connect
students’ background knowledge to the current concept or topic?
This mental set has matured over the years and has been influenced by
the writings of others like Lev Vygotsky (1962) and Louise Rosenblatt
(1995), who also stressed the need for the learner to have the
background knowledge to actively bring to the text or the learning
situation. This attitude is alive and well now in all my university
classes. For me, my instructional practice is strictly about engaging
and interacting with my students in order to facilitate cognitive
Lesson Design and Questioning
As I design a lesson, I assess the concept being taught and the
students in order to determine if there is a match between the concept
level and the students' background knowledge. This assessment process
is key to
engagement and to the creation of a safe learning environment. While I
am striving for some cognitive disequilibrium (Piaget, 1974), I work to
avoid frustrating the students and shutting down their learning.
An essential strategy that I use is questioning. The questioning
process in my lessons is challenging and creative and always
interesting. When used appropriately, effective questioning strategies
promote diversified interactions among students in the classroom.
Whenever I select this method, I simultaneously:
- build knowledge,
- explore complex concepts,
- enhance students’ self-confidence, and
- produce a dynamic learning environment.
Questioning, as a strategy, allows me to assess students’ responses and
determine their levels of understanding. This reinforces the notion
that students’ knowledge development is personal and often distinctive.
Effective questions help me to begin to differentiate the instruction
and support students in synthesizing prior and new knowledge while also
expanding their understanding of the learning process. It is a
scaffolding process that results from the thoughtful responses of
students. In developing an understanding of the power of questions, I
have learned that I can build students’ comprehension and cognition,
and guide their understanding in all areas of their learning. Effective
questions combine all the ingredients, and teachers can use the
strategy in all subject areas and with students of all grade levels.
The Questioning Cycle
I carried these views into my administrative life. In schools where I
was the principal, I encouraged faculty to recognize questioning as a
means of supporting cognitive development. Over the years, I built on
these experiences and developed them into a structure. I called this
the Questioning Cycle and shared it with teachers I worked with.
The main principle in the Questioning Cycle is that questions are one
of the most important tools a teacher can use to build a community of
thinkers. Fruitful questions promote an environment that appreciates
thinking, problem solving, and decision making. They encourage students
to consider and accept diverse ideas, even those that may seem foreign.
Another principle that underlies the Questioning Cycle is that it is a
systematic method to collect information about students’ knowledge
while they explore a topic, concept, or idea.
The teacher uses the steps in the cycle as follows:
- planning the question,
- asking the question,
- allowing wait time,
- listening to the student’s response,
- assessing the student’s response,
- following up the student’s response with another question, and
- re-planning based on all the students’ responses.
Steps in the Questioning Cycle – Lesson’s Goals and Objectives
The teacher plans a question and then goes through a series of
follow-up questions with the student. When teachers ask these questions
they generally begin by defining the concept and building the student’s
content vocabulary related to it. Peers are called upon to participate
in the interaction at appropriate moments during the flow of the
conversation (Fusco, 2012).
As teachers use questions to stimulate conversation, the discussion
allows students to reveal their real understanding of the concepts
being explored (Fusco, 1983). A guided discussion helps students
explore the concepts and issues that they face in their subject areas
and recognize how these ideas relate to their world. After students
engage in interesting discussions, they may go to their text, classroom
resources or the Internet to get further information that builds their
knowledge and helps to explain the ideas they pursue.
Questions that are meant to inspire thoughtful reflection are
especially important. As students become more reflective in their
responses, they grow more successful when reading complex text. They
become used to asking good questions of themselves when they are
reading and discussing text.
The Nature of Answers
In using the Questioning Cycle, it is important for teachers to recognize that they must become invested in the answers
that students give to their questions. In this context, the teacher is
not necessarily looking for a “correct” answer, but instead is using
questions to build cumulative learning or to encourage elaboration of
an idea. No longer is a single answer a correct response to a question.
Instead, all responses become valuable data and are appropriate because
they reflect the students’ cognitive levels. Responses are perceived as
more than a mere retelling of the details of a text and become a
vehicle for informal assessment of students’ cognitive level and a
guide for selecting appropriate future lessons.
Obviously, students’ responses will comprise diverse answers that range
from restatements to generalizations to hypotheses, and this range
itself depends upon the concept contained in the lesson and the level
of questions asked. Teachers might realize that more in-depth study is
needed, that another avenue needs to be pursued, or that the student
lacks interest in the topic.
Learning for the 21st Century
In John Dewey’s early book How We Think
he continually advocated for making learning an active reflective
process that engages students’ thinking about real issues and ideas.
Since his writing, many scholars have continued to advocate for a
paradigm of questioning that moves away from a low-level factual
approach to one that emphasizes the rigorous thinking and processing of
information that was also central to the Socratic Method.
The Questioning Cycle addresses these concerns in a way particularly
relevant for the 21st Century. The interaction promoted by the
Questioning Cycle produces a collaborative exchange that brings a
quality and depth to students’ learning and maximizes the likelihood
that students will be able to apply their knowledge to challenging
real-world situations. As Mariale Hardiman writes in her book Brain Research with Effective Teaching: The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model
“Most effective educators ... know that the acquisition of content,
skills, and processes is only the beginning of a quality instructional
program. They realize that good teaching does not stop with the
acquisition of knowledge. It also provides students with opportunities
to use knowledge meaningfully by developing high-order thinking and
problem-solving skills and connecting knowledge to real-world
applications” (2003, p. 70).
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
Dewey. J. (1991). How We Think. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
Epstein, Herman T. (1978). Growth spurts during
brain development: Implications for educational policy and practice. In
J. S. Chall and A. F. Mirsky (eds.) Education and the Brain, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Furth, Hans and Wachs, Harry. (1975). Thinking Goes to School. Oxford University Press.
Fusco, Esther. (2012). Effective questioning strategies in the classroom. New York City, New York: Teachers College Press.
Fusco, Esther. (1983). The relationship between
children’s cognitive level of development and their responses to
literature. Doctoral dissertation, Hofstra University, Hempstead NY.
Hardiman, Mariale M. (2003). Connecting brain
research with effective teaching: The brain-targeted Teaching model.
Lanham, Maryland R&L Education.
Piaget, Jean. (1974). The language and thought of the child. Trans. by Marjorie Gabain. New York: New American Library.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, Massachusetts: M.I.T. Press.
Esther Fusco is currently an Associate Professor at Hofstra
University in Hempstead, New York. She is the Chair of the Department
of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership. Initially, she served as an
adjunct at Hofstra for fifteen years before becoming a full time
faculty member. Prior to becoming a full time faculty member at
Hofstra, Dr. Fusco was the principal of the Port Jefferson Elementary
School for eight years and the principal of the Babylon Elementary
School for eight years. In Babylon she also served as the Director of
Curriculum K-12 and the Director of Special Education. Dr. Fusco was a
Middle School Reading Coordinator and Elementary Gifted Coordinator in
Shoreham Wading River School District. Currently, Dr. Fusco is the
Facilitator for the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Development) National Network on Language, Literacy and Literature and
the Chair of the Balanced Literacy SIG for International Reading
Association. Dr. Fusco has authored several children’s literature
programs and numerous articles on curriculum and instruction and a
series of books on portfolio assessment.
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