Questioning: Are Kids Getting A Balanced Diet?


I am writing this because I will enjoy doing so. I will be stretching an analogy very, very thinly – it will be translucent by the time I’m done. Also, puns are fun. Also (again) don’t expect many ( probably any) sensible research citations or references much beyond the initial one. Like I said. This is mostly for enjoyment (mine certainly, maybe yours too).

The Inspiration

So, I was reading Louise Hutton’s splendid blog post titled ‘Closed questions are often the most important questions…‘ where she gives a detailed account of how she uses closed questions to ensure that her students are able to access higher level thinking skills from Bloom’s taxonomy. The blog begins with a story which will be very familiar to most… ( I am going to paraphrase it – crudely)


You are sat in your ITT provider’s session and boom! Here it is! The glorious pyramid! The slippery slope to pupils being able to think like scientists or geographers or chefs. All those beautiful terms that you can insert into your objectives/outcomes/walts/wilfs/musts/shoulds/coulds or, heaven forbid, ALL, MOST, SOME!!

Your challenge as a teacher (a novice teacher too) was to move the pupils up that pyramid in every lesson and a great way to achieve this was by asking open questions. This often led to failure of some sort because the base of the pyramid was not solidly constructed and could not support the levels above it. True depth of knowledge was not present.

What would Barak Say?

Louise also refers to the seminal work ‘the principles of instruction’ by Barak Rosenshine which explains that the most effective teachers ask many questions, do lots of modelling and worked examples and use retrieval practice etc. They won’t have time within a single lesson to hit the dizzy heights of create or evaluate as they know this will not be done successfully without unshakable understanding, memory and the experience of applying that knowledge.

Note here that I have rather cheekily swapped the bottom two layers of the pyramid around in my sentence. I believe, possibly erroneously, that the memory that is desired is one which is deemed as accurate. This must therefore come after understanding has been established. If some information is incomprehensible then it is unlikely to be remembered due to lack of understanding. Rehearsal of information in the working memory is required to build long term memory which lasts and this is surely a prerequisite of being able to then successfully apply knowledge over a significant amount of time without forgetting. (thanks to Ebbinghaus here for the curve; a notion conceived over 130 years ago!)

Anyway, the information Louise popped into my brain (from my environment) combined with knowledge I have of a balanced diet pyramid (from long term memory) led me to analyse these separate pieces of knowledge and an analogy was born!

pyramid tweet

Right. Here we go. Stretch the analogy…

The balanced diet pyramid gives you information on the type of foods you should consume and in what relative proportions. If you are going to have enough energy to last the day and thrive you need a large amount of carbohydrates to do this – they provide you with a long lasting supply of glucose with which to carry out respiration, a process without which all living things would perish.

The carbs are analogous to those closed recall questions and comprehension checks. They are the retrieval quiz of the nutrient world. They are essential if knowledge and understanding are going to manifest in the mind. People sometimes go on fad diets and “cut out carbs”  to which I happily point out that most of the vegetables and fruits which they are scoffing are actually made of simple carbohydrates like fructose and sucrose etc so you are getting them anyway! All of the levels contain, at least, trace amounts from other layers and so show the interconnection of the different aspects of thinking skills.

Do You Teach Experts?

So as we stare longingly at the sweetie jar with its high sugar content and masses of calories this represents an intensity of knowledge which is probably only possessed and readily accessible to true experts in a field. These people create new knowledge. They have such a solid grounding in the basics and application and analysis of their specialised area that they actually develop it and extend it beyond what other people can conceive. It would be a rare thing to find this within a 14 year old. If you spend your lessons (as we were once taught to) pushing the sweeties (metaphorically) into their hungry minds and maintain this approach it leads to problems.

The illusion of knowledge is, to this analogy, what type II diabetes is to a balanced diet. The result of poor choices made over a period of time (I may be pushing too far now but as risk factors for type II go, obesity is the top one). Without skillfully building schema, through well chosen questions, and reinforcing the links between them in the minds of our students we cannot expect to build a future of successful thinkers and doers.

The Menu: Making the Best Choices

To build this future we have to realise that we are a small part of a long journey which may take pupils to the top of the pyramid but if they are to be successful they must have solid foundations of knowledge, both tacit and procedural, which can be established through our actions as teachers.

To conclude the analogy if pupils are to have a healthy body and healthy mind they need a balanced diet which is initially chosen by those around them who care for them. We have a responsibility as the providers of mental nourishment to make the right choices.

As the more informative triangle directs you; select more from the bottom and less from the top.

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