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Skillful Inquiry Invites Participation

They say you can’t go home again, but I’m not entirely sure it’s true. When I became a docent at the National Gallery of Art after a long career as a nurse educator, I discovered that some of the tools I had used in that former life were quite useful at the Gallery. One of these is effective communication, which I used to establish meaningful relationships with my patients. Another is Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which I used to develop course objectives and structure exams for my nursing students. Both have been invaluable in my new life leading tours for school children. In this article, I will first discuss Bloom’s Taxonomy as it relates to inquiry method teaching, then list some effective communication tips and describe their connection to inquiry and Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Bloom’s Taxonomy provides a framework by which I implement inquiry teaching, or questioning strategies, while working with school children pre-K through grade 12. In 1956, Bloom headed a group of educational psychologists who classified levels of intellectual behavior important to learning. Bloom identified six levels within the cognitive domain, from the simple recall or recognition of facts on the lowest end of the scale, to more complex and abstract mental levels, and finally to evaluation, which is the highest order. Structuring questioning strategies according to Bloom’s Taxonomy assists in the development of critical thinking skills.

At the National Gallery of Art, we frequently use the inquiry method of teaching to stimulate student participation and to encourage students to draw conclusions themselves. This method is not new. In fact, it harkens back to the fourth century B.C., when Socrates taught the youth of Athens. Rather than lecture, Socrates asked his students many questions and gave them few answers. He asked his questions in a way that drew upon knowledge the students already possessed. The “Socratic Method” encouraged students to experience and consider new ideas, and ultimately, to achieve genuine self-knowledge.

In the museum, students come to us with different experiences, backgrounds, and abilities. Varying the level of questioning gives more children an opportunity to participate in the discussion. The questions themselves should relate to tour and curriculum objectives, and they should be varied to ensure that they address the different levels, experiences, and learning styles of the student audience. A framework like Bloom’s Taxonomy can assist in constructing that variety.

The Bloom classification levels are Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. Using this framework can help the docent develop questions that are appropriate to the age and intellectual level of the learner. Following is a list of key words for formulating questions at each level.


Knowledge questions are geared to students who are being introduced to a topic — students who have little or no experience with the theme of the tour. They include recall of information, knowledge of dates, events, and major ideas. Questions seeking to determine knowledge might be used with such words as recall, identify, tell, who, what, when, and where.

For example, if a tour objective is that students will be introduced to the historical figures in early American art, the docent might ask the students to “Name the first president of the United States?” or “Which president (who) can be found on the dollar bill?”


Comprehension builds on knowledge and implies that students understand information and can paraphrase it. The student who comprehends is able to interpret and see relationships. Queries seeking to determine comprehension might ask the student to summarize, compare, discuss, or predict. For instance, if a tour objective is to highlight differences between two artists, the docent might ask, “How is Helen Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea different from Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist}” and “How are these works similar?”

Application Application means that the student is able to use the information to solve problems and examine new situations. Questions might ask students to demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, and decide how many, and what is. For example, if a tour objective is to demonstrate a connection between math and architecture, the docent might ask the students to solve a mathematical problem: “This column is made up of six drums. Each of these drums is six feet tall. How tall is the column?”


Analysis implies that the student can take a problem apart, see patterns, recognize hidden meanings, and identify components. Analysis is higher order questioning that requires students to think critically and in depth. Questions ask them to select, analyze, explain, classify, divide, arrange, and tell why. For example, if the tour objective is to understand the process of action painting, the docents might ask, “Explain how you think the artist made this painting?”


Synthesis means that the student can use old ideas to create new ones, predict, draw conclusions, and/or relate knowledge from several areas. It requires the use of critical thinking skills. At this level, the questions might ask the student to rearrange, create, design, invent, compose, or prepare. For example, some National Gallery tours have hands-on activities. One of these activities is to compose a poem about a specific work of art after the students and docent have discussed the object. In another activity, the docent invites students to consider the way Henri Matisse used color and shape in his cut-outs and to create their own Matisse-inspired collages, using small sheets of colored paper.


Evaluation verifies that a student can compare and discriminate between ideas, make choices based on reasoned argument, and verify the value of evidence. It requires students to make judgments or form opinions. Personal values can be applied. These higher level questions do not have a single correct answer. Students might be asked to assess, measure, support, compare, summarize, or conclude. For example, following a discussion of the Calder mobile, Untitled, the docent might ask students to choose a name for this work. Responses can be as many and varied as there are children. The students realize that each of them interpreted the piece in a different way.

Communication Skills

In addition to using a framework to formulate questions that are geared to the age and intellectual level of the learner, docents need to ask questions in a way that stimulates interest. Essential to successful inquiry teaching, effective communication is more than casual conversation. It is thoughtful and deliberate, focusing on the objectives at hand. It is directed toward facilitating active discourse. Several techniques are useful for encouraging dialogue between the docent and students. It is crucial to use appropriate communication techniques to formulate questions that are clearly stated, age-appropriate, and open-ended. This invites students to interact with the docent and the works of art. Please note that connections to Bloom’s Taxonomy are indicated in parentheses.

Open-ended Questions

One technique is to ask questions that are open-ended, avoiding questions that can be answered by “yes” or “no.” Asking how two works of art differ from one another stimulates discussion (comprehension), whereas asking if the two paintings are different results in a “yes” or “no” answer, impeding further exploration.

Refer Back

Another technique is to refer to information given earlier in the tour (knowledge) and build upon it (comprehension). For example, the docent might say, “Think about the first painting we saw today. How is it similar to the one we are looking at now?”

Adequate Thinking Time

Once a question has been asked, it is important to give students time to think and formulate their answers. A few moments of deliberate silence on the part of the docent will evoke more meaningful responses from students. This is especially important when asking higher level questions (analysis/synthesis). A statement such as “think about this for a few minutes,” alleviates the discomfort that silence sometimes elicits and conveys to the students that they are expected to answer.

Listening Techniques and Non-Verbal Cues

For communication to be successful, listening is as important as speaking. It is crucial to let students know they are being heard and that the docent respects what they have to say. One way to accomplish this is through positive body language. Making eye contact, moving closer to the speaker, nodding the head affirmatively, and smiling convey interest in what is being said.

When working with children, the docent can make better eye contact by sitting on the floor with them or sitting on a camp stool. This places the docent and students on the same physical plane and prevents talking down to them. It also reassures the group that the docent is listening.

Feedback to Students

Another way to let students know the docent is engaged and listening is to provide feedback when students respond to questions. Seek clarification, paraphrase, state what is perceived, and summarize. For example, the docent might ask, “I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say this painting is wild. Would you explain?”

Paraphrasing the student’s thoughts about the art sends the message that the docent has picked up on the student’s ideas. For example, a docent might say, “I see that you are shaking your head ‘no.’ Tell us why.” Summarizing puts together all the ideas that have come forth in the dialogue, (analysis/synthesis/evaluation)

Positive Reinforcement

The age-honored technique of positive reinforcement works wonders to keep students focused and invites participation. Statements such as “These ideas are really impressive!” delight students and raise their self-esteem. Once their self-confidence increases, so does their willingness to participate.

Putting It All Together

Bloom’s Taxonomy and skillful communication techniques are practical tools to use with the inquiry method of teaching. They help docents formulate questions that are organized around a framework and geared to the intellectual levels of the learner. When docents ask open-ended questions and invite participation through verbal and non-verbal cues, they can count on “consumer satisfaction.” After a recent visit one student was heard to say, “I expected a boring talk, but this was actually fun!” What a great way to end a tour.

Blooms Taxonomy Knowledge Comprehension Key Words Key Words Define Summarize Recall Describe Identify Differentiate Name Compare Tell Contrast Who Estimate What Discuss When Predict Where Application Analysis Key Words Key Words Apply Select Demonstrate Analyze Calculate Explain Complete Classify Illustrate Divide Show Arrange Decide Tell why Classify Solve How many Which What is Synthesis Evaluation Key Words Key Words Rearrange Assess Create Rank Design Grade Invent Test Compose Measure Prepare Explain Support Compare Summarize Conclude simple complex

Ruth Gordon Thomas, Ed. D., is in her tenth year as a docent in the Teacher and School Program at the National Gallery Of Art in Washington, D.C., and has served on the Docent Council as a chairman of the Virginia docents. She is a professor emeritus at Northern Virginia Community College, where she was Head of the Nursing Program. Dr. Thomas holds a doctorate in Education from The American University, Washington, D. C, and master’s degrees in education from American, and in nursing from George Mason University, Fairfax, VA. She also holds an associate degree in fine arts from Northern Virginia Community College.

Gordon Thomas, Ruth. “Skillful Inquiry Invites Participation,” The Docent Educator 12.1 (Autumn 2002): 10-13.

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