+ Teach Students to Ask Questions

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From the Harvard Education Newsletter, an article by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana details the “Question Formulation Technique” (QFT) they have developed at the Right Question Institute.

Educators at the Right Question Institute have developed a step-by-step process that helps students learn how to produce questions, improve them and strategize ways to use them in their learning.

Four Essential Rules for Producing Questions

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Don’t stop to discuss, judge or answer them.
  3. Write every question down exactly as stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

Improve the Questions

  1. Categorize each question as “open-ended” or “closed-ended.”
  2. Name the advantages and disadvantages of each type of question.
  3. Change questions from open-ended to closed-ended or the other way around.

Prioritize the Questions

  1. Choose the three most important questions.
  2. Discuss why you chose these three as the most important.

Next Steps: How to Use the Questions

  1. To learn something for a test?
  2. To develop a research or science project?
  3. To analyze a word problem?
  4. To think more deeply about a reading assignment?
  5. To write an essay?
  6. To develop a research project?
  7. To prepare an interview?
  8. Or to simply get yourselves “unstuck?”

Teachers: Six Key Steps

Step One — Teacher designs a “Question Focus.”  The Right Question Institute calls this the “QFocus.”  

The QFocus is a prompt presented in the form of a statement or a visual/audio aid.  The QFocus attracts students’ attention and stimulates the formation of questions. 

Note that it is NOT a teacher’s question.  It’s simply a focus for students to use to on their own, to identify and explore a wide range of themes and ideas. 

For example, after learning about the 1804 Haitian Revolution, the prompt might be a statement: “Once we were slaves.  Now we are free.”

Step Two — Students produce questions.   Using the four rule protocol outlined above, students create questions without assistance from the teacher. 

Before they begin, the teacher introduces the rules and encourages discussion of possible challenges in following them.  Students should discover that these rules enable them to think more broadly than they might have otherwise.

Step Three — Students Improve their Questions.  Analyzing the differences between questions that are open-  and closed-ended, and changing them from one to the other, helps students refine and polish their questions. 

The teacher begins by defining  “closed-ended” versus “open-ended” questions.  Students are then able to categorize their own into one of the two. 

Step Four — Students Prioritize  their Questions.  With the lesson plan in mind the teacher offers guidelines for choosing priority questions.  If it’s an introduction to a unit, “Choose the three questions you most want to explore.”

If students are designing a science experiment, say “Choose three testable questions.  To prepare an essay related to a piece of fiction, “…three questions related to the key themes we’ve already identified in the piece.”

Rothstein and Santana stress that during this phase students are moving from “thinking divergently” to “thinking convergently.”  They are able to zero in on the locus of their inquiry in order to plan concrete action steps.

Step Five — Students and Teachers Decide on the Next Steps.   By this point, students and teachers can work together to determine how to use the questions they selected.

They might rank them, for example, to choose the topic for a seminar discussion, or for the essay, or to make a final decision on the theory of their research project.    

Step Six — Students Reflect on What They Have Learned.  The teacher reviews the steps and gives students a chance to reflect on what they learned by the six steps: producing, improving and prioritizing their questions.

Students benefit from the completely transparent QFT process.  It helps students see what they’ve done and how it contributed to their think and learning.  The goal is to internalize the process and apply it in many other settings.

Teachers Say

Teachers who deploy the QFT have noticed three important changes in classroom culture and practices.  They say that using it consistently increases participation in group and peer learning.  Classroom management has improved.  And they have been able to address educational inequities by getting more students engaged.

Rothstein and Santana have heard teacher say that their traditional practice of saying “Do you have any questions?” never got much response.  Sharif Muhammad, in Roxbury Massachusetts, found that after using the six-step process he was struck by “how the students went farther, deeper, and asked questions more quickly than ever before.”

The big change for teachers is that — now — students will be asking the questions.  The teacher’s role is simply to facilitate that process.  It’s a change for students as well. 

It may take a minimum of 45 minutes for students to go through all the steps the first time.  But as students gain experience, teachers find that using the QFT gives them the ability to run through the process very quickly, sometimes in 10 to 15 minutes — even when working in groups.   

Rothstein and Santana write

The QFT provides a deliberate way to help students cultivate a skill that is fundamentally important for all learning.  Teaching this skill in every classroom can help successful students to go deeper in their thinking and encourage struggling students to develop a new thirst for learning.  Their questions will have much to teach us.

My sole source: Dan Rothenstein and Luz Santana’s article in the Harvard Education Letter, September/October 2011. 

Rothstein and Santana are codirectors of the Right Question Institute and the authors of the forthcoming book Make Just  One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.  It will be published by Harvard Education Press in September 2011.  Visit http://www.hepg.org

tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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