In the movie Shrek, the ogre Shrek waxes philosophical and tells his traveling companion, Donkey, “Ogres are like onions. They have layers.” Focus questions are also like onions. No, they don’t make you cry or turn brown in the sun (as Donkey suggested to Shrek), but they do contain layers that can be peeled back to maximize student learning.
In the book Questioning for Formative Feedback: Meaningful Dialogue to Improve Learning, author Jackie Acree Walsh describes four layers of questions that can be used in classrooms to enhance student learning (pp.116-124):
- Questions that activate prior knowledge. These inquiries are often found at the beginning of the class session, and they may be deemed “warm up” types of questions. They focus student thinking on previous content and help make connections to the new material to be covered.
- Questions that examine surface learning. These inquiries are often focused on what I would call “common” content. Names, dates, eras, and similar content matter might fall into this category, because those items don’t require much more than rote memorization of facts.
- Questions that generate deep knowledge. These inquiries lead to more significant thinking. They may include “why” and “what if” types of questions that require greater content connections.
- Questions that transfer knowledge. These inquiries require students to apply what they have learned to new or unique situations. They may include evaluation and the development of alternative solutions or strategies.
As you prepare for next week, think of ways you can peel the onion in your classroom. You and your students will be glad you did!