“Read this chapter for tomorrow, and be prepared to discuss it.”
Students hear sentences like this one over and over in school, but what does it mean to be prepared to discuss a text? Often it means to be ready to answer the teacher’s questions, but how do teachers come up with these questions? Additionally, as students enter the higher grades, they should be generating their own questions to contribute to the discussion, but how can they formulate such questions?
Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Skills offers an answer. First published by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom in 1953 and later revised by some of his former students, Bloom’s Taxonomy organizes learning into a progression of cognitive levels: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. The idea is that students need to start at the lower levels of cognition with a new concept, then progress into higher levels. Teachers can use the action words associated with each level in planning class activities, and they can use the question stems associated with each level in planning discussion, test, and essay questions.
Let’s look at Bloom’s Taxonomy and those question stems through the lens of teaching Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of my favorite texts. Here’s how I might move through the levels:
1. Remembering: I need to check that students recall their reading. I might ask questions such as what sort of event Macbeth and Banquo are returning from when they meet the witches, or what predictions the witches make.
2. Understanding: I want to make sure students comprehend the text. I might highlight some key passages and ask students to paraphrase what the characters are saying — not an easy feat for modern readers dealing with Elizabethan English.
3. Applying: This level is where the more in-depth discussion questions start. I might ask students to find examples of Lady Macbeth attempting to manipulate her husband in Act I, or I might identify a theme of the play and ask students to find evidence for it.
4. Analyzing: This level has even more potential for discussion. I could ask students to predict the action in the next act based on what has already happened in the play, to make inferences about King Duncan’s character based on the textual evidence, to identify a key theme. (Note that in Applying, I would give students the theme, whereas in Analyzing, I’m asking them to find the theme themselves.)
5. Evaluating: This level also has great potential for discussion, because this is the level of drawing comparisons and setting forth arguments. I might ask students how much responsibility Lady Macbeth bears for the action, what role the witches actually play, or to compare and contrast Macbeth and another character.
6. Creating: This level isn’t used as much in discussion, but it has wonderful potential for demonstrating learning. I could ask students to research and present a report on some aspect of eleventh-century Scotland or Shakespeare’s London, or I could place students in groups, assign each group a key scene from the play, and have them rewrite it for a different setting, rehearse it, and perform it for classmates.
How can students use Bloom’s to improve their reading skills? They can ask themselves the same sorts of questions that a teacher would, using the question stems to write them. Readers not sure if they’re fully comprehending the text can start with Remembering and Understanding questions; readers more confident in the text can concentrate on Applying, Analyzing, and Evaluating question stems. Like any new skill, writing the questions takes practice at first, but it gets easier and easier.
A student who makes a habit of asking herself these questions the night before class won’t just become a stronger reader, she also will become more confident in class discussions because she already will have considered the sorts of questions that might come up. A student who takes the process a step further, bringing her own questions to ask the class, might find herself acting as a sort of class leader — and more importantly, she’ll be ready down the road as discussions in high school and college are increasingly driven by student inquiry.
By Elizabeth Walters, Private Tutor
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