Garry Burnett explains how different types of question can improve thinking skills

What is the main difference between the following two questions: 

1. What did you learn today?

2. What was the most useful thing you learned today?

Question 2 is obviously a very different kind of question to Question 1, because it doesn’t just require the answer to be based on the straight recall of a fact i.e. ‘knowledge’. Instead, it invites some kind of estimation or value judgement to assess, in this case, the comparative ‘worth’ of two different experiences. To follow this question with something like ‘Why was this important ?’ would require the listener to then justify the views given and sustain their level of thinking at a highly challenging standard of cognitive processing.

Many of us will recall from our teacher training, encountering hierarchies of cognitive processing based on the work of Benjamin Bloom et al. The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives was originally created in the 1950’s by Bloom as a means of delineating ‘qualitative differences’ in thinking. Bloom’s Taxonomy has since been adapted in classrooms all over the world for use as a planning and evaluation tool and continues to be one of the most universally applied models across all levels of schooling and in all areas of study. This is how it looks :

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

BLOOM ————————————————-ANDERSON

Knowledge —————–became——————— Remembering

Comprehension —————–became —————–Understanding

Application —————–became ——————— Applying

Analysis —————–became ———————– Analysing

Synthesis —————–became ——————— Evaluating

Evaluation —————–became ——————– Creating

During the 1990s, however, Lorin Anderson (a former student of Bloom) led a team to revise the taxonomy with the view to examining its relevance for the twenty-first century. One of the main differences they proposed was in the nomenclature, and particularly in the change of nouns to verbs (e.g. from ‘knowledge’ to ‘remembering’) in order to stress the active nature of thinking. In addition to this, Anderson replaced ‘evaluation’ with ‘creativity’ as what he perceived to be the highest-order thinking skill.

Most GCSE specifications follow the pattern of this taxonomy, (just check your syllabuses to see!) ranging from the acquisition of knowledge at a simple level (learning facts) through to the original, creative and imaginative use of information and generation of new ideas. Bloom originally represented this model not as a ladder, but a pyramid, in order to emphasise the inter-dependency of the skills (it is difficult to analyse without understanding for example, one skill building on another).

There could be tremendous cross-curricular cohesion in learning, if all departments were to discuss, absorb and apply this model more consistently – consciously and carefully; framing questions to move pupils’ thinking from ‘knowledge’ and ‘comprehension’ into independent, original and imaginative thought. The ‘Learning to Learn’ team at Malet Lambert School Language College, each have a taxonomy ladder in their classrooms, complete with movable fridge magnet of Einstein’s face, which ascends and descends as we reflect meta-cognitively on the nature of the thinking and learning processes we have undertaken.

We all want pupils to think and learn more ‘for themselves’, and to understand what it means to raise their level of thinking. Taking time to share the concepts behind this model, i.e. to ‘teach it’, might at least help staff and pupils to understand more completely the nature of the hierarchy Anderson has proposed. It might also help to develop initiative, or possibly to focus areas for independent learning and revision. It may even be used to encourage parents to participate more actively in the learning process, possibly by framing questions which are not simply routine or knowledge-based.

Here is an example of a ‘Questioning Frame’ with a series of prompts.


Recognise, list, describe, identify retrieve, name …can the pupil RECALL information?

Typical questions / activities might include:

What happened…? How many…? What is…? Describe what happened…? Who said…? Identify who…?


Interpret, exemplify, summarise, infer, paraphrase …can the pupil EXPLAIN ideas or concepts?

Explain why…? Clarify the…? What do you think could have happened next…? What was the main idea?


Implement, carry out, use …can the pupil USE the new knowledge in another familiar situation?

Put into your own words… Use this information to …Try yourself…


Compare, contrast, attribute, organise, deconstruct …can the pupil DIFFERENTIATE between constituent parts?

How is …similar to …? Why did x occur? What were some of the motives behind…? If x had happened what might the ending have been? Can you distinguish between…? Why did the…?


Check, critique, judge hypothesise …can the pupil JUSTIFY a decision or course of action?

Could there have been a better solution to… ? What do you think about…? How effective is ..? What would you recommend..? How well…?


Design, construct, plan, produce …can the pupil GENERATE new products, ideas or ways of viewing things ?

Can you design…? Write your own…? Produce a …Come up with…

Garry Burnett is currently an Advanced Skills Teacher at the Malet Lambert School in Hull. He is actively involved in the National Campaign for Learning and regulary leads training sessions at local, national and international level.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, December 2005.