Classroom Discourse Part 4: Teacher questions: a discourse tool for higher student cognition

In the last article in the Classroom Discourse series, we looked at some ways of disrupting the restrictive IRF discourse routine, enabling more flexibility in student interaction. This time, we will look at teacher questions more specifically, and think about their relationship to the cognitive level of students’ work.

Student output (the language that students put forward in the classroom) is strongly linked to teacher language. As we have seen in previous articles, teachers are traditionally dominant and controlling over the interaction in the classroom, and are generally seen as figures of linguistic authority by students, so it follows that the stimuli provided by teacher language can affect responses from students. If we want to increase the cognitive activity that our students perform, how can we adjust what we do in the classroom to facilitate this?

Levels of cognitive activity

Firstly, it is important to define what we mean by ‘cognitive activity’. The best-known framework for defining this is Leopold Bloom’s (1953) famous Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, a cognitive taxonomy where different levels of thinking were defined and ordered in a hierarchy from low to high, ranging from the lowest level (recall) up to the highest level (self-system thinking).

Since Bloom, further research has been done into the different ways we think, though the hierarchy remains essentially the same. One of the clearest and most useful reworkings of Bloom’s taxonomy is that of Marzano and Kendall (2010), who reworded the same levels to suggest a more active, student-focused view of what happens when information is processed at these levels. Let’s define these briefly below:

High Self-system thinking, including reflection on the effectiveness of processes taken and decisions made, emotional response and motivations

Metacognition, including monitoring use of language and content through processes, accuracy and goal-setting

Knowledge utilisation; application of known content into experimental activity, Mid investigation, decision-making and problem-solving processes

Analysis of language structures and content by classifying, organising, generalising and specifying points about new information

Comprehension, integrating and synthesising new information into known structures

Low Retrieval of information, recall of words and facts, using known words and structures

Much of what learners do in the language classroom can be matched to the activities shown above in bold, and can be linked to those levels of cognition. Unfortunately, in most language classrooms around the world, the vast majority of the thinking performed by students is limited to the low-mid end of the scale, with student work restricted to recall, comprehension and lower-level language analysis.

Think back to your own language education at school - how much time did you spend thinking about your learning strategies, self-evaluating, consciously monitoring your own performance, or thinking about how effective your study of that language was? Compared to the amount of time spent directly studying new language, translating, doing comprehension and accuracy-focused language exercises (all of which fall in the lower end of Marzano’s taxonomy), the amount of higher-cognitive activity that went on was (like my own experience) probably minimal.

I admit that this is a generalisation, but one based on my experiences in classrooms around the world, in both state schools and private language schools, where the majority of teachers spend the majority of their time getting students to understand and form language, with minimal amounts of free usage, and little to no reflection on how and why they are doing the tasks they are instructed to do.

Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on specific contexts within ESOL, including exam preparation and assessment literacy.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our course pages for details.

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