Margo M. Criscuola, Ph.D.


Guiding Thinking

Teaching students to think without doing the thinking for them 

Most students need a teacher's active guidance to develop their thinking. They also need a lot of practice. How can teachers guide thinking, while making sure the student is practicing, and not just following the teacher's line of thought? A teacher's authentic questioning can steer students in active thinking practice. Authentic means open-ended, motivated by respect for what the student has to say, never "leading" or rhetorical.


The simplest form of questioning is the uptake question, asked in direct response to a student's comment or question. The teacher "takes up" the student's idea, inviting the student to develop it. We often ask this kind of question in conversations with friends, when we are truly interested in understanding them. 


To help students fully express their meaning so it can be considered, an uptake question can be as simple as, "What do you mean?"  

Student (at the end of an introductory lesson on fractions): Is that the way we always make fractions?


Teacher: What way do you mean? [uptake question to help the student clarify]


Student: Like we did. We kept cutting it in two.

The teacher's uptake question revealed a student's misconception. How might the teacher respond, if she wants the student to keep right on thinking?

Teacher: Can you think of some other ways to cut? [uptake question for further thought]


Student: Maybe three or four?

The uptake question prompts the student to a new idea: Different numbers can be denominators!


What if an uptake question stumps the student?

Teacher: Can you think of some other ways to cut?


Student: (silent, thinks his idea might be stupid)


Teacher: He's brought up an interesting question. Can someone else think of other ways to cut? [follow-up question]

The follow-up question invites other students to join the inquiry. They too have a responsibility to think through the problem. Follow-up questions can also prompt other students to suggest alternative ideas and to weigh ideas. For instance:

Student 1: It's weird. Freedom of the press and religion and assembly are all crammed into one amendment.


Teacher: Do you think they should be in separate amendments? [uptake question to help student clarify]


Student 1: It might be clearer. Just one thing in each amendment.


Teacher: Can you think of a reason why they did it this way? [uptake question for further thought]


Student 1: Maybe it's the first amendment, these are the most important things. That's the only reason I can think of.


Teacher: What do the rest of you think? [follow-up question]


Student 2: Yeah, they are the most important. But the others are important. Like Habeas corpus is very important too.


Student 3: But that's only if you get arrested or suspected or something. The first ones are things everyone could do all the time.

Student 1 started with a vague idea about the first amendment, and began to compare it with the other amendments ("most important things"). Because the teacher treated this idea with respect and asked the class to respond, the students began to compare the amendments to solve the problem. (In Common Core Reading Standards for Informational Text, they have started work on "Craft and Structure.") 


When their teacher uses authentic uptake and follow-up questions consistently, students will come to anticipate such questions and incorporate thinking "moves" such as citing and explaining evidence and listening to and responding to alternative ideas into their own habits of mind.


With experience, teachers and students will discover many ways to use authentic questioning. Professional development and coaching can jump-start the process by helping teachers make sure the questions really are authentic, and not attempts to steer students to conclusions the teacher has predetermined.


Finally, a teacher needs a way to assess thinking as a compass to guide the process, pointing out the next steps students might take, and revealing how students' early efforts are moving them toward stronger thinking.


| 3.1.2012 | Print |