Engage Students In Expanding Their Thinking


Almost everyone agrees that schools should be places in which students learn to think.

National, state, and district standards documents invariably stress the importance of having students interpret and synthesize information, draw inferences and conclusions, think analytically, and employ other higher-order thinking skills.

But how do you teach these skills? How do you help students learn to think? The answer is simple and profound. It has to do with the relationship between thought and language.

Consider the following statements. Which do you agree with?

  1. Language is thought—they’re the same thing.
  2. Language allows us to express our thoughts, which have an existence apart from language.
  3. Language enables
  4. The bigger your vocabulary, the smarter you are.

Regardless of what you believe about the truth of these statements, you have to agree that they got you thinking. And the medium or mechanism was language. You started thinking because someone asked you a question. And it wasn’t just any old question. It was a thinking question.

The answer is simple. If you want to help students learn to think, you have to engage them in thoughtful conversations.


Questions that encourage deep understanding and promote critical thinking all have the following in common:

  • They are open-ended and cannot be answered satisfactorily in one sentence.
  • They focus on what is essential for the student to learn.
  • They add to a student’s previous knowledge.
  • They motivate students to take an interest in a topic, problem, issue, etc.
  • They help students apply essential learning to real problems, new situations, issues, decisions, etc.
  • They promote critical thinking skills.
  • They should be part of the normal routine of the learning process.

High-level and Low-level Questions

Our goal as educators is to help our students become lifelong learnersTo do this, we need to teach them to be critical thinkers and creators of knowledge.   If we look at the number of questions teachers ask each day and the format in which they ask them, we can see ways to inform our teaching as well as ways to encourage the development of these skills in our students.

Activity:  Identifying high-level / low-level questions

Watch the following video of a teacher working with students in a 5th-grade math class. Observe the types of questions that are being used to encourage deeper student thinking. Determine the level of effectiveness of the questioning techniques used within the lesson and share your observations with us. We would love to hear from you.

Here are a few additional course recommendations which might be helpful.

  1. Raising Rigor In Your Classroom, Grades K-12
  2. Creating Student Innovators, Grades K-12