Using the Question Matrix to Teach Critical Thinking

In my current role as a district  instructional coach, I enjoy sharing strategies with my colleagues that support critical thinking skills for students. One strategy that has proven to be very popular with teachers and students is the Question Matrix, developed by Weiderhold and Kagan in 1995. On the surface, the matrix is a visually appealing organizer containing question starters.

Looking closer, one observes that the matrix can be used to develop higher-order thinking skills, supporting Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking. Moving from left to right across the top of the matrix, each question builds in complexity from basic comprehension to inference. The same pattern flows from top to bottom -- question stems expand thinking from surface level through deeper learning to speculation.

To use, take an inquiry stem from the left column and add an auxiliary verb from the top row to create a probing question.  Answering a “What is . . .” question demonstrates literal thinking, whereas, “Which should . . .” supports opinion and inference. Students will need to extend their thinking and make a prediction to answer a “Why will . . .” question.  A series of increasingly challenging questions are formulated as learners advance from the top left to the lower right on the matrix. [copy]


Using the Question Matrix in the Classroom

A good place to start would be getting students to ask questions. When working with students like English learners who might struggle to answer questions,  consider printing out this chart as a poster resource. It is highly effective when used with an image, like a painting, a photograph, or a still from a video. A colleague of mine used this strategy recently by beginning a history unit on westward expansion with the famous painting by John Gast called American Progress, but perhaps better known informally as Manifest Destiny.

In the painting, Columbia, the personification of America, moves from the “enlightened” east across the Great Plains toward the unknown west. It is hugely allegorical, referencing the modern east and contrasting it with the dark and forbidding west. White settlers advance across the plains, foreshadowing the fate of indigenous people, and the destruction of natural resources.

To a class of middle school English learners, it was just a jumbled and incomprehensible mess until my colleague embedded it within a question matrix and crafted it into an i do, we do, you do activity. Students analyzed the image closely, identifying facial expressions, lighting effects, the book in Columbia’s hand, and the stampeding bison. They produced dozens of questions through a very animated discussion. They were in awe of what they had discovered in the painting .

In the next lesson, the teacher replaced the image with a new one: thousands of bison skulls stacked on top of each other collected at a rendering plant. The students were shocked at the image. They immediately connected this image to American Progress, and their questions seamlessly extended to the realm of speculation and opinion. Perhaps more importantly, they demanded answers.

The following day students viewed an image of a Native American camp and the teacher challenged them to continue to ask questions, but also to begin to formulate an answer to the unit question: describe the consequences of westward expansion on Native American cultures and natural resources. The students were excited and ready to learn. They enthusiastically sought answers to “their” questions.

The question matrix can be used in any content area and at most grade levels. An image of devastation caused by an earthquake or tsunami could introduce a unit on earth science. A particularly insightful passage from a novel could inspire a guided class discussion starting at surface level and progressing to speculative thinking. As students extend their thinking, they are also learning how to support it with evidence.

Students can write their question directly on a paper copy of the matrix or create a collaborative slideshow. Open the matrix on an interactive white board and challenge students to initially fill it with questions, and later, answers. Recreate the poster on the class board and ask students to use sticky notes to post their questions. Consider posting the questions in class and check them off as students answer them over the course of the unit. Ask students what questions they were able to answer yesterday and what questions they still need answers to.  Questions could also be used to create unit assessments. Congratulate students for answering “difficult” questions and for expanding their thinking.

Benefits of the Question Matrix:

  • It is a highly differentiated activity that allows all learners a point of entry within a topic
  • Successfully answering questions of increasing difficulty or complexity builds confidence
  • Supports metacognition - students are thinking about their thinking and reflecting upon it
  • Provides a visual reference to students that conceptualizes a hierarchy of questions
  • A tool to analyze multiple types of media sources
  • Encourages the gathering of evidence to support answers

In summary, the question matrix is a wonderful strategy to use with students to demonstrate and support critical thinking. It can be used to introduce a topic and assess background knowledge, develop inquiry skills, establish and guide original research, scaffold and differentiate learning for all students, and as a resource to support those developing their English language skills.


Image sources

American Progress - Wikipedia

File:Bison skull pile.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

John Miller is a California Teacher of the Year Finalist (2017) and Fulbright Fellow, having researched games and learning in Singapore (2019). He currently works with underperforming and economically disadvantaged students in middle school, promoting literacy through innovative uses of educational technology. John would like to thank NNSTOY for giving him this opportunity to share his passion. You can learn more about John by visiting his website, johnmillerEDU.com, and by following him on Twitter, @johnmillerEDU.


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