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In our Social Studies class (EDCP 331), we had a guest speaker from the Critical Thinking Consortium give a talk about how to embed critical thinking into our Social Studies lessons. I think that this is increasingly important in a digital age where information is at our fingertips; where Google and Wikipedia are the new fountains of knowledge. The guest speaker, Roland Case, broke down the types of questions we can ask into three levels:

Level 1: Basic rote questions – Look up the fact and write down the answer. (eg. When was the original Super Mario Bros video game released?)

Level 2: Opinion questions – Give a response that’s about how you feel. (eg. What is your favourite videogame?)

Level 3: Powerful questions – Forces the responder to judge the merits of possible answers in light of criteria. (eg. Should children be allowed to play videogames?)

Case suggests that powerful questions can be asked and answered by students of any age; they just need to be taught how to do so. It’s the level 3 questions that really get the students talking, and it’s when the talking starts that the learning actually starts to happen. Most people can’t learn by simply sitting and listening.

The Relativity of Wrong

This talk reminded me a lot of a 1988 Isaac Asimov essay I read recently called The Relativity of Wrong, in which Asimov discusses the spectrum of “right and wrong”.

The essay is found in a book of the same title.

He argues that there are degrees of being right or wrong, and uses a child being asked to spell the word sugar as one example. If the child spelled it “pqzzf” we would say that he or she is more wrong than if it had been spelled “shuger”. “Shuger” is incorrect, but it’s more right than “pqzzf”. Further, a really bright student might write “sucrose” or even “C12H22O11“. How would a teacher grade that?

Asimov’s essay is fascinating and touches on many aspects of learning which are much less trivial than the spelling of the word sugar. Hundreds of years ago, people thought the world was flat, and it turns out they were wrong. Then people said the world was a sphere, which is almost right. But in actuality the world is not so perfectly round, with its deep valleys and grand mountains. So to say the world is round is more right than saying the world is flat, but it’s still not entirely correct. In Physics, we’ve seen this type of progression transpire countless times. For instance, Newton’s formulas have stood the test of time and work well on the macroscopic level, but in the 20th century our physicists have discovered the alarmingly strange world of quantum mechanics, which makes Newton’s laws look a little bit less correct than before. As humans, we’re always building on the ideas and knowledge of our ancestors, trying to come up with ideas that are more right than the ones before them. It’s a continuing process with seemingly no end, and ultimately I think it’s what drives us as human beings.

What does this have to do with teaching?

Roland Case’s talk got me thinking about the types of questions we ask our students. We bore them to death with facts and dates which they will not remember the day after the test, and which they can simply look up with their iPhones anyway. That’s not to say that all Level 1 questions are bad questions, but we should definitely be putting some thought into how we are asking our students to understand the curriculum’s content.

Level 1 questions involve right and wrong answers. You either know it or you don’t, and if you don’t, you can use the wonderful world of the Internet to look it up. Level 3 questions  require you to judge the merits of possible outcomes in light of criteria. There are many possible answers, some of which may be better or more advanced in their scope. Level 1 is Trivial Pursuit, and Level 3 is Scattergories.

I think that as you move from Level 1 to Level 3 questions, there is a large increase in the number of possible answers to the questions, and this contributes heavily to the power of Level 3 questions. For example, in a simple Level 1 question such as, “In what year did World War II end?” there is basically one right answer: 1945. One might argue that there are a few other possible answers if you were using a different calendar, but for the most part, there’s one right answer, and everything else is wrong. Conversely, in a Level 3 question such as, “Explain how the world would we different if the Germans had won World War II” there are many possible answers, and not a whole lot of wrong answers. Who’s to say if it’s wrong? As long as the response is reasoned, logical and/or well articulated, it should be awarded full marks.

It is these Level 3 questions, with their infinite amount of possible answers, which make the most powerful questions. Why is that? I would argue that it’s due to the nature of who we are. As humans, we like to socialize, and what is more social than debating and inquiring through conversation? Level 3 questions encourage people to defend their answers and analyze their thoughts against a criteria. These types of questions encourage conversation and deliberation. You actually have to think to answer them.

I really enjoyed this talk from Roland Case and it will definitely influence me in my long practicum as I design lesson plans for teaching the Renaissance to middle schoolers.

One Comment

  1. We need to find a warp zone to get them from level 1 to 3.


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